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Ukraine launches counteroffensive to break Russia’s hold on major southern city

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has called on Russian troops in Kherson to retreat, warning that they will be “annihilated” if they remain in the city.

Ukraine has been laying the groundwork for weeks, amassing forces and weaponry, and now it says it is making gains in the country's south.

Bolstered by newly acquired long-range weapons from the West, the country's forces, which long vowed to launch a counteroffensive, have destroyed key Russian targets in the Ukrainian city of Kherson.

Russian troops are “virtually cut off” by the counteroffensive, which is “gaining momentum,” the British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence briefing Thursday.

At least three bridges on the Dnipro River have been damaged, it said, adding that the strategic Antonivsky Bridge used to transport supplies to the southern city was likely “unusable.” As a result, Russia’s 49th Army stationed west of the river was “highly vulnerable,” it said.

Retaking Kherson, which was seized by President Vladimir Putin’s forces early in the invasion, would be “a major blow to the Russian war effort,” Udi Greenberg, a professor of modern European history at Dartmouth College, told NBC News on Thursday via the Signal messaging app.

As a port city, he said, “it has major strategic and economic values.”

Greenberg added that the counteroffensive had “the potential to be very important,” because Ukraine had “until now been mostly on the defensive” and it would “test the country’s ability to shift the balance of this military conflict.”

It would be the first time a major city had been retaken by Ukrainian forces since the conflict began Feb. 24.

Buoyed by the success of the recent attacks, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry has called on Russian troops in Kherson to retreat, warning that they will be “annihilated” if they remain in the city. “The choice is theirs,” the ministry tweeted Wednesday.

Activities of Ukrainian artillery batteries at the frontline in Kherson
Ukrainian troops check weapons and special equipment at the front line in Kherson last week.Metin Aktas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, promised to rebuild the destroyed bridges in a late night video address posted to his Telegram channel Wednesday. But he insisted his forces were "doing everything to ensure that the occupiers do not have any logistical opportunities on our land.”

The Kremlin has not commented on the attacks, but Kirill Stremousov, who serves as the deputy head of the Russian-backed Kherson Military-Civilian Administration, denied the bridge strikes had affected supplies in the city. They would “not affect the outcome of the hostilities in any way,” he told the Russian state news agency RIA.

The shift south to Kherson comes after fighting intensified in recent days in the eastern Donetsk province as Russian forces appeared to emerge from a reported “operational pause” after capturing neighboring Luhansk.

Valeriy Akimenko, a senior research associate at the U.K.-based Conflict Studies Research Centre, said he did not believe that Ukraine could win back the two industrial regions that make up the Donbas.

But, he said, the fighting there could “open other possibilities to tear holes in what must be a very thinly stretched Russian line in Ukraine’s south.”

However, Ukrainian defense officials have warned Russia was gathering forces to meet the counteroffensive.

“The enemy is now concentrating the maximum number (of forces) precisely in the Kherson direction,” Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security and defense council secretary, said in televised remarks Wednesday, as he warned of “a very large-scale movement” of Russian troops.

He added that he was “cautious” in assessing the timeline of the possible counteroffensive. “I would really like it to be much faster,” he said, adding that “the enemy is now concentrating the maximum number (of forces) precisely in the Kherson direction.”

Elsewhere, Russian forces launched a missile attack on the Kyiv area for the first time in weeks Thursday and pounded the northern Chernihiv region as well, Ukrainian officials said.