Ukraine's army says don't underestimate Russia ahead of major Kherson battle Ukrainian forces have made significant gains in recent weeks, recapturing wide swaths of territory in the east and northeast. Now they're bracing for what may be one of their toughest battles yet.

In the battle for Kherson, Ukrainian infantry officers say don't underestimate Russia

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Ukrainian forces have made tremendous gains over the last several weeks, recapturing wide swaths of territory in the east and northeast. But now they're bracing for what could be one of their toughest battles yet, Kherson. They've made progress towards the strategically important southern city, but the Russians are dug in. And as NPR's Franco Ordoñez reports, Ukrainian officers don't think victory will be easy. Just a note - this story does include the sound of gunfire.


FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Dozens of Ukrainian soldiers push their way through a tall field of grass. They confront an enemy less than a mile away, and the battle intensifies. It's a training exercise on a military camp in eastern Ukraine, but a key one for this newly formed brigade that heads to the front lines as early as next week to face the Russians. Major Roman Kovalev is leading the new battalion. He tells his soldiers and anyone who will listen that the Russians should not be underestimated.

ROMAN KOVALEV: (Through interpreter) To be true, the Russians know how to fight.

ORDOÑEZ: Despite Russia's recent losses, Kovalev insists the Russians won't be underprepared.

KOVALEV: (Through interpreter) They learn fast. They're not the same forces as they were in the spring. It is hard to fight them.

ORDOÑEZ: And he says the Russians are more deliberate in how they use their resources and advantages in artillery.

KOVALEV: (Through interpreter) Now they understand they'll face strong resistance. So they're changing their tactics. They're moving more cautiously, trying to take our land piece by piece.

ORDOÑEZ: There's a lot at stake in Kherson.

OLEKSANDR MUSIENKO: Kherson is very important for Russia and also for Ukraine.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Oleksandr Musienko, a military expert based in Kyiv. For the Ukrainians, taking back the regional capital would be huge for morale and a strategic win. It would also set the stage to take back parts of the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region, including a nuclear plant that the Russians control. And it would be devastating for the Russians. Not only did they illegally annex Kherson recently, but Musienko said it would deal a blow to their plans to cut off Ukraine's access of the Black Sea.

MUSIENKO: If we will occupy Kherson, we will destroy the Russian plan to move forward to Kryvyi Rih, to Mykolaiv or to Odesa.

HRYHORIY HAVRYSH: (Through interpreter) It would be huge, really huge. Kherson is symbolic for the south.

ORDOÑEZ: And as eager as the Ukrainians are to take it back, Major Hryhoriy Havrysh says Russians are not going to give up control without a bitter fight.

HAVRYSH: (Through interpreter) We made our push. We made progress. They reacted. And now, we need to make new opportunities.

ORDOÑEZ: Some of the newly mobilized Russian conscripts have been sent to help in Kherson. Local officials installed by Moscow are also building territorial defense units and encouraging willing men to join. Kirill Stremousov is the Russian-installed deputy minister of the region. He's trying to paint a picture that they're holding the Ukrainians at bay. Meanwhile, the Moscow-appointed city officials flee into Russia proper.


ORDOÑEZ: As for Major Kovalev, he says he's not concerned about additional Russian forces.

KOVALEV: (Through interpreter) Let them all come. The more that come, the more that will remain here.

ORDOÑEZ: For him, the battle of Kherson is also personal. After Kherson, the Ukrainians can turn to an even bigger prize, the Crimean Peninsula, which is where Kovalev grew up. He says he hasn't been home in eight years.

KOVALEV: (Through interpreter) Sometimes I dream about it. I dream about the sea. I dream about my home city. My soul is there.

ORDOÑEZ: It's only a matter of time, he says, before his dreams come true. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Dnipro, Ukraine.

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