IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

All eyes are on the battle for the east. But the south might hold the key to Ukraine's fate.

Russian troops withdrew from Snake Island, a key strategic outpost off Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, as analysts said a counteroffensive in the south could ultimately prove decisive.  
Russia's firm grip on parts of Ukraine's south has gone largely unchallenged since early in the war. But that’s beginning to change.Genya Savilov / AFP - Getty Images

For weeks, the world’s attention has been fixed on the battle for Ukraine’s east, where Russian forces have been pressing a painstaking advance. But in the south, recent developments suggest Russia’s hold on territory it seized there may be increasingly fragile.

Moscow's troops withdrew from a key strategic outpost off Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast Thursday, the latest blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the area. It comes amid a nascent Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kherson as well as growing signs of partisan activity and the Kremlin straining to exert control: The south may be flying under the radar for now, but analysts say it could ultimately prove decisive in the struggle for Ukraine’s future.  

Russia has controlled large chunks of Ukraine’s south — including the entire Kherson region — since the early days of the war. 

Since late May, however, the Ukrainian army has been reporting counteroffensive operations against Russian forces, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying last week his military was “gradually liberating” the region.

It has left observers wondering if Ukraine is laying the groundwork for a major counteroffensive in the south to open a new front and potentially tip the war in its favor.

“Kherson is really the gateway to Ukraine’s success,” said Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “If Ukrainians can push through Kherson, then that raises the prospect that they can begin to turn the tables on the Russian invasion in a much bigger sense.”

Kherson is a strategically important city of almost 300,000 that serves as a gateway to broader control of the south. It was the first major city captured by Russia after the invasion four months ago.

Located at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea, just a two-hour drive from Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, it is critical to establishing a land corridor from Russian-controlled areas in the east all the way to Odesa in Ukraine’s southwest — which analysts have said may be one of the goals of the Kremlin’s invasion. 

The Kherson region has been under the control of Russian forces since the early days of the invasion.
The Kherson region has been under the control of Russian forces since the early days of the invasion. AP

While Ukraine’s gains are moderate at the moment, they serve an important purpose, Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Kyiv-based Penta Center think tank, said. 

“They, at least partially, divert Russia’s attention and resources from the Donbas,” he said, referring to the industrial region in Ukraine’s east which has seen the most intense fighting in recent months. “They also allow Kyiv to create footholds for a future counteroffensive there.”

The ultimate objective of such an offensive would be the recapture of Kherson, said Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst and the head of intelligence at the consultancy Le Beck. The city sits on the west bank of the Dnieper River, in an area that’s critical to the Ukrainian economy. “In the longer run, pushing Russian forces out of southern Ukraine, and off the coast of the Black Sea, is far more critical to Kyiv than the battle in the east,” he added. 

More than 130 miles southwest of Kherson in the Black Sea, Ukraine claimed a victory Thursday after Russia pulled out from a key strategic outpost that became symbolic of Ukrainian resistance early in the war.

Moscow said its forces withdrew from Zmiyinyy (Snake) Island as a “goodwill gesture.” Ukraine, however, said the Russians hastily evacuated after successful missile and artillery strikes, and Kyiv thanked its Western partners for their assistance after a flurry of recent heavy weapons shipments. 

Satellite images show an overview of Snake Island earlier this month.Maxar Technologies / AFP - Getty Images

The island sits off Odesa, the crucial port that is one of many shipping routes the United States and others have accused Moscow of blockading in order to cut off grain exports and worsen the growing global food crisis. Russia has denied the accusation and said its withdrawal was evidence it didn’t want to hamper agricultural shipments.

For now, Russia is still dictating the pace of the war and where battles are waged, Horowitz said.

“But as we enter a longer war of attrition, an economically significant region like Kherson might become far more important, and so is Ukraine’s ability to challenge Russia in the Black Sea and bypass the Russian blockade,” he said, adding that the Snake Island retreat was evidence of this. 

While Ukraine is threatening Russia’s hold on the south with conventional military forces, Kherson is also becoming a center for partisan warfare, Melvin said.

Last week, a senior official in the Russian-installed administration was killed in an apparent assassination, Reuters reported. Ukraine’s military also reported last week that two Russian soldiers had been killed when a gunman opened fire at a waterside cafe in Kherson. NBC News could not independently verify either report.

People gather for a ceremony to mark Unity Day in Kherson, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)
Thousands of people attended pro-Ukrainian rallies in the region prior to the invasion, as shown here. Some kept gathering to protest after Russia took control, but those have dissipated amid a wave of unverified reports of repression against local activists, journalists and war veterans. Brendan Hoffman / The New York Times / Redux

Despite occupying Kherson for months, Russia has been struggling to find enough collaborators to comfortably establish full administrative control over the area, Fesenko said. 

The city’s elected mayor, Igor Kolykhaev, has refused to work with the Russians since they took control. He was arrested Tuesday, according to his adviser, Galina Lyashevskaya, who told NBC News they had not heard from Kolykhaev since his detention and she was concerned for his life. 

Meanwhile, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the new administration, said Wednesday that the region is “preparing for a referendum” to join Russia. 

The possibility of a sham vote has raised fears the area might be turned into a “people’s republic,” akin to the eastern breakaway territories Russia already controls, or even annexed directly.

But Russia’s military is relatively thinly deployed in the area at the moment, Melvin said, while it focuses on the Donbas — another reason why Ukraine is looking to push through. 

“The question then is — can Ukraine turn the momentum that they are building up in the south into something bigger?” Melvin said. “This is what we are going to see play out over the summer months.”