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Ukraine goes on offensive in the south; inspectors head to nuke plant

Ukraine is counterattacking in the south. For weeks, Kyiv has talked about recapturing territories it's lost on the Black Sea. Meanwhile, international experts head to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station to inspect the dire situation there.

(CN) — A much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive apparently was launched on Monday in a bid by Kyiv to turn the tide of the war and recapture territories lost along the Black Sea.

Intense fighting was reported northeast of Kherson, a port city of about 283,000 people located where the Dnieper River flows into the Black Sea. Kherson was the first city to fall under Russian control shortly after the start of the invasion.

For weeks, Ukraine has vowed that it will reclaim Kherson and push Russian forces out of the rest of the south, including Crimea, a highly strategic peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014. But achieving this goal in the short term would be immensely difficult and carries a high risk of failure for Ukraine. Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian forces hold about 25,000 square miles of territory in the south, an area slightly smaller than Ireland.

Over the weekend and on Monday, there were reports of a barrage of Ukrainian missile strikes on Kherson, against bridges across the Dnieper and on Russian forces in the area. Ukraine claimed its troops had broken through the first line of Russia's defenses northeast of Kherson. But it remained far too early to assess the success of Ukraine's counteroffensive.

Russian military officials said they were holding the line and inflicting heavy losses on the attackers. Russia's defense ministry claimed more than 560 Ukrainian troops were killed in the offensive and that 26 tanks, 23 infantry fighting vehicles and two warplanes were destroyed.

Ukraine's defense ministry had not yet reported on the results of Monday's fighting in the south. In a late night video on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy exclaimed that Russian forces would be driven out of Ukraine, though he added that he would not divulge Ukraine's war plans.

"The occupiers should know: We will oust them to the border, to our border," Zelenskyy said. "If they want to survive, it is time for the Russian military to flee. Go home. If you are afraid to return to your home in Russia — well, let such occupiers surrender, and we will guarantee them compliance with all norms of the Geneva Conventions."

One of Zelenskyy's top advisers, Oleksiy Arestovich, confirmed in an online interview that the offensive was underway and vowed that Russian troops will be able to withstand the assault for up to a month, if not much less, as reported by Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet.

"I can say one thing: the events have begun, it seems to me. They will be more fun, meaningful and interesting every day," Arestovich said.

Late Monday, there were also reports of numerous Russian airplanes and helicopters leaving Crimea for the front lines and of heavy artillery exchanges.

Much of the fighting appeared to be taking place about 40 miles northeast of Kherson with Ukrainian forces seeking to reach the Dnieper River. Russia told workers in a town on the Dnieper called Nova Kakovka to shelter in bunkers after it came under heavy shelling.

New strikes also reportedly hit the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, a massive nuclear power plant about 110 miles northeast of Kherson under Russian control.

The plant has come under repeated attack, raising the specter of a radiation leak. Both sides accuse each other of shelling the facility at the risk of causing a disaster.

Ukraine alleges Russia is using the power station as a military staging area and that it wants to divert its energy away from Ukrainian-held territories. The nuclear station, Europe's largest, provides Ukraine with about a third of its electricity.

On Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said both sides had agreed to allow a team of its experts to inspect the nuclear site. The mission is expected to arrive there later this week and provide a clearer picture of the plant's status. IAEA inspectors also were expected to remain at Zaporizhzhia, which could help ease tensions over the plant.

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Last week, the station temporarily lost power due to shelling and a forest fire near the plant caused by explosions. Although it is under Russian control, Ukrainian workers continue to operate it. There have not been any reports of radiation leaks and safety systems are working, according to Ukrainian officials.

The IAEA said its team “will assess the physical damage to the facilities, determine the functionality of the main and backup safety and security systems, and evaluate the working conditions of the control room staff.”

The war in Ukraine has been raging for more than six months and there are no signs of ceasefire talks any time soon. Indeed, with Ukraine's attempt at a counterattack in the south and continued fighting in the east, the war looks set to escalate further in the coming weeks before the approach of winter.

In recent days, Russia's ministry of defense has claimed its troops have inflicted large losses on Ukrainian forces as fighting rages over the eastern regions known as Donbas. Although Russia has not made significant advances in the east, the fighting has been gruesome and Russian forces have seized a few settlements.

After capturing the entirety of the Luhansk region in early July, Moscow is determined to seize all of neighboring Donetsk, the other region that makes up Donbas. Donbas is short for the Donets Coal Basin, a large mining and industrial area developed during the Soviet era.

Luhansk and Donetsk were the theater of an eight-year war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces that erupted following the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during the so-called “Maidan Revolution” in late 2013 and early 2014.

Yanukovych fled the country after violent protests broke out over his decision to sign an economic deal with Russia instead of the European Union. Following his removal, a pro-Western government, backed by the United States, took power in Kyiv, sparking a civil war in Ukraine.

The newly-installed Ukrainian government saw Russia as a brutal imperial power determined to impose its authoritarian rule on Ukraine and destroy its chances of embracing the European Union, joining NATO and fostering Ukrainian culture.

The failure of ceasefire agreements and diplomacy, brokered by France and Germany, over the Donbas war laid the stage for Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin declared Russia's security was threatened by NATO's expansion into Ukraine and the arming of Kyiv's forces.

Before the outbreak of war, Ukraine was a deeply divided multi-ethnic country with a dominant Ukrainian population eagerly pushing to join Western institutions and a much smaller Russian population that wanted to keep close ties to Russia.

Historically, Ukraine was divided geographically with western parts of the country falling under Polish, Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian rulers and eastern parts becoming incorporated into the Russian empire by the 18th century. Ukraine became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With its strategic location deep inside former Soviet territory and on the Black Sea, Ukraine's huge expanses and vast industrial complexes have become pivotal territory in an explosive conflict over resources and global power between the United States and Russia. Since the outbreak of war, the rift between Moscow and Washington has become huge and threatens to escalate into a much larger war.

During the eight years of combat in Donbas, the front lines became heavily fortified and fighting there has become particularly awful. Tens of thousands of troops on both sides have been killed, according to military experts.

There are reports that Russia is also moving additional troops equipped with newer modern weapons and equipment toward Ukraine, potentially with the goal of mounting offensives. Reports say Moscow has formed a new battle group made up of paid volunteers, the 3rd Army Corps, and moved it toward the war zone.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, said the Kremlin likely hopes the 3rd Army Corps will “renew offensive operations” in the east and south. But it doubted these volunteer forces – many of whom it described as “physically unfit and old” – will help Russia regain momentum. Along with many Western military experts, the institute's analysts say Russia's invasion has stalled.

“The fact that the 3rd Army Corps units are training on better gear and apparently being held back to deploy in more coherent combined arms groups suggests that the Russian military intends to commit them to offensive operations and hopes to regain momentum somewhere along the front line,” the institute said in a Saturday report.

But it added: “The 3rd Army Corps elements are unlikely to generate effective combat power, however. Better equipment does not necessarily make more effective forces when the personnel are not well-trained or disciplined, as many members of the 3rd Army Corps’ volunteer units are not.”

Reports of worn out and ill-equipped troops, desertions, cruel and reckless behavior by commanders and miserable front line conditions are coming in from both sides.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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