THE secretly distributed flyers and posters that have been appearing on the city’s walls warn of what’s to come.

Written in Russian and depicting the ­image of a rocket launcher they have been showing up ever since March when the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson was captured by Russian forces.

“Occupier, leave now – or this Himars will help you,” reads one, a reference to the High Mobility Artillery ­Rocket ­Systems (Himars) supplied to the ­Ukrainian ­military by the United States.

These weapons have become ­something of a battlefield game changer for the Ukrainians enabling them to strike at ­targets further afield and making Himars a symbol of Russian vulnerability.

And nowhere are Kyiv’s forces more determined to exploit that vulnerability right now than in Kherson which is set to become the epicentre of a Ukrainian counter offensive.

It’s hard to overestimate the ­significance the retaking of Kherson would have on this conflict which is now in its sixth month. Should Ukraine succeed it would be a devastating blow to Russian ­President Vladimir Putin’s’ ambitions to control southern Ukraine, particularity those vital ports along the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Putin’s aim has always been to link these up with Crimea, which has been annexed and occupied by Russia since 2014.

For some time now the Ukrainians have been setting the stage for a broad counteroffensive and the tactical deployment of the Himars systems have left thousands of Russian soldiers mainly from Russia’s 49th Army, stationed west of the Dnipro River around Kherson in a precarious ­position.

Those Russian troops are largely cut off from strongholds held by other units to the east a situation made worse by Himars strikes last week that saw the key Antonivsky bridge across the Dnipro and other critical routes made almost ­impassable.

Just to ram home the precariousness of the Russian forces’ position ­Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian ­president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote in a tweet: “Occupiers should learn how to swim across the Dnipro River. Or should leave Kherson while it is still possible. There may not be a third warning.”

President Zelenskyy is more than aware of the strategic opportunity this moment brings, insisting that he wants to retake Kherson by September. But just how ­realistic a prospect is such a victory and what challenges lie ahead for ­Ukrainian forces?

On the positive side so far, Ukraine has liberated 44 villages and towns in the Kherson region in a clear ­demonstration that the weapons supplied by the West have had an impact. But much as the Himars have undoubtedly made their mark, Ukrainian forces are firing so many of the missiles daily that there are ­questions over the capacity to resupply fast enough.

As Kyiv calls for more of the weapons, the US appears to be struggling to keep the flow of ammunition coming. Fully aware of such possible deficiencies, Ukrainian officials have been keeping the pressure on their western allies for ­support.

“Just give them weapons and let them work,” Natalya Gumenyuk, the ­spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern military command and Kherson ­offensive, was quoted by The New York Times as saying.

The issue of weapons and ­ammunition supplies aside, there is also the ­question of manpower as any full-on ­Ukrainian ­counterattack would require a huge ­number of troops in what would be ­difficult urban fighting.

Russia too of course is preparing its own response having dug in around ­Kherson and said to be conducting a “massive ­redeployment of forces from Ukraine’s east to the south according to Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych.

How all of this plays out in the coming days and weeks will very much depend on how quickly Russia reinforces its forces in and around the city.

For the moment, around Kherson at least, Russia’s southern strategy of ­converting areas it holds into ­pro-Russian towns, deporting pro-Ukraine ­populations and introducing Russian administration and governance will have to take a back seat.

Moscow’s priority now will be stopping what would be a major boost for Kyiv should it retake the city.

If there’s one sure thing about ­Kherson, it’s that the days ahead will be even ­bloodier, for so much is at stake here in determining the future direction and ­outcome of this war.

The National:

TAIWAN: Xi and Biden trade warnings over visit of House speaker

FEW seem willing or able to confirm for sure whether it will go ahead this coming week. But so feverish is the speculation and intensity of the reaction alone over Nancy Pelosi’s anticipated visit to Taiwan, that many analysts believe China and the US are heading into a tense new faceoff over Taiwan.

“If she goes, there will definitely be a Taiwan Strait crisis, and it will definitely exceed the last one in 1995-1996,” Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai told the Financial Times which first broke the story of Pelosi’s visit last week. According to Xinbo, China’s enhanced military capabilities compared to 26 years ago will almost certainly guarantee a more robust response from Beijing.

If initial responses from China are anything to go by then that would appear true after China’s president Xi Jinping warned his US counterpart Joe Biden against “playing with fire” over Taiwan. If some reports are to be believed, then it’s not as if the Biden administration itself appears enamoured by the idea of the first visit to Taiwan in 25 years by a US House of Representatives Speaker. In fact, some reports suggest that the Biden administration has already sought to discourage Pelosi’s trip, coming as it does at precisely the moment when tensions are already running high over the disputed island.

According to Chinese state media, President Xi has reiterated that the US should abide by the “one China principle” and stressed that it firmly opposes Taiwanese independence and the interference of external forces.

Given that Beijing considers Taiwan to be its own territory and has repeatedly suggested retaking control of the island by force, Pelosi’s visit is seen as an open provocation. It doesn’t help too that it would likely coincide with China’s celebrations of the August 1 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.

It’s worth remembering in all this that Pelosi who is third in line to the US presidency after Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris would be the highest-ranking US official to travel to the Taiwan since 1997.

For her part Pelosi has long had form as a critic of the Chinese regime. From unfurling a banner in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square commemorating victims of the government’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989 to her support for the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, she is most certainly not on China’s favourite list. So, what happens next?

Well, first let’s see if indeed Taiwan remains part of Pelosi’s itinerary for her Asia trip, though that looks to be the case. Second, if it goes ahead, then Biden will have a job on his hands to handle the diplomatic fallout and reduce the possibility of the “forceful countermeasures” Beijing has warned of if Pelosi sets foot in Taiwan. While few analysts believe that China would take direct action against Pelosi, its response could still take many forms from naval blockades of South China Sea islands to cosying up to Russia. The biggest fear of course is of some miscalculation or accident and that’s sure to be on everyone’s mind both in Washington and Beijing.

The National:

ITALY: Far-right leader tipped to become first female PM

FOR a time, things looked to be picking up on the political and economic front in Italy under Prime Minister Mario Draghi. That though was before the downfall of Draghi’s national unity government this month which has catapulted the country into a new political landscape.

With a general election now looming on September 25 many are now talking about Giorgia Meloni, the rising star of the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) and the possibility of her becoming the country’s first woman prime minister and far-right leader since Benito Mussolini. Back in the 2018 general election Meloni’s party was barely scraping 4% of the vote compared to now when it has edged up the polls to being the most popular in Italy.

Meloni is running as part of an alliance with Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, and Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister and head of the conservative Forza Italia. This combined right-wing front is expected to gather up about 45% of the vote which would give it a comfortable majority of seats in parliament. But alongside the strength this combined front brings comes also a potential political Achilles’ heel for Meloni.

Recent reports in the online magazine Politico suggest that a number of these right-wing party chiefs had recent contact with Russian diplomats just before Draghi’s downfall, raising as the magazine says the “unsettling question” of whether the Kremlin had a hand in Italy’s latest turmoil. Meloni meantime has done all she can to distance her party and campaign from any association with fascism, including sending out internal memos to the party faithful instructing them to avoid making extreme statements and refrain from the so-called Roman salute, which resembles the Hitler or Nazi salute. Such cosmetic makeovers though do little to downplay her Brothers of Italy party’s identification with Italy’s fascist past right down to its tricolour flame logo and echoes of Mussolini.

With the slogan “Italy and Italian people first!” and “God, fatherland and family” as her creed leading her into the election campaign, Meloni is worth keeping an eye on in more ways than one. Italy’s neighbours will certainly be watching closely concerned as to the safety of the European project in Italy and future relations with Russia. Then again, Meloni must first win September’s election, and we all know how notoriously fickle Italian politics can be.

The National:

IRAQ: Moqtada al-Sadr on the move again as crisis grips the country

IT’S a political crisis that has left the country unable to form a government a full nine months after parliamentary elections back in October 2021. Already there is talk of a summer of protests continuing to grip Iraq after supporters of powerful Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr stormed the Iraqi parliament last Wednesday to protest against corruption and one of the candidates running for prime minister.

With competing factions failing to agree on the composition of the new government the political turmoil worsens and as has happened so often in the past al-Sadr is there to mobilise a response. For years now the mercurial cleric with his nationalist, anti-Iran agenda has enabled mass mobilisation and control of his vast army of supporters to bring pressure to bear during critical moments in Iraq’s turbulent politics.

Al-Sadr, who once led the main Shia resistance to the US occupation, is still a man who can summon his followers at the snap of a finger and bring the country to a standstill. With Iraq now in a state of political paralysis as rival elites jostle for power ordinary Iraqis can only look on as their country is continually destabilised. By bringing his supporters on to the street again last week al-Sadr was yet again laying down a marker, letting rivals know that he cannot be ignored in any power brokering. As ever too the malign presence of neighbouring Iran hangs over the ongoing crisis, and indeed last week’s protests by al-Sadr’s supporters came about after former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, nominated a pro-Iran politician to be Iraq’s new leader.

All this bodes ill of course for the country and already the political impasse since last year’s elections marks the longest period it has taken fractious political groups to agree on a new administration since the first US-backed election in 2005. There are other consequences too from all this, ranging from preventing Opec’s second-largest oil producer from enjoying rewards of high crude prices to making foreign investors jittery.

“We’re just moving from crisis to crisis, with no clear end in sight to the stalemate,” was how one senior government official summed up the situation to journalists last week. With both the al-Sadr and al-Maliki factions having so much to lose and both wielding significant power within the state, as well as on the street, Iraq’s crisis can only deepen and the remaining summer will be hot in more ways than one.