Russia has indicated that they are now withdrawing their forces from the city of Kherson. This represents another setback for Putin’s campaign. The Black Sea port on the Dnieper river is the only major city that Russia has managed to occupy – and it is the administrative capital of the Kherson oblast which was one of the four regions that Russia annexed in September. Its apparent abandonment is certain to have important implications.
Across northern and central Ukraine, the conflict is becoming increasingly static, though losing none of its desperation. A shift in season makes rapid advances difficult for both sides as the weather deteriorates. Across the frontlines, land forces will struggle simply to survive the falling temperatures.
For the last few weeks, attention has fallen on the Kherson region, with the expectation it would represent a final major confrontation before winter changes the nature of the conflict.
Now, the commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, has announced that Russian forces will withdraw from the city, retreating over the Dnieper to the south. This has come as something of a surprise. There have been reports of Russia entrenching its position in the city, in preparation for a major battle. Surovikin’s announcement included a rare public admission of the inadequacy of Russian forces – he cited the logistical challenge of supplying troops under his command as the reason for the withdrawal. This is naturally quite suspicious.
A withdrawal at this point does make some practical sense. Russia is now fundamentally on the defensive, and needs to choose its battles carefully. Kherson offers the chance for the Russians to compel the advancing Ukrainians to engage in urban warfare, a costly type of fighting that is often disastrous for the attacking side. But this would, however, impose a terrible cost on the defending Russian forces as well – and, at this point, Russia cannot afford to shoulder losses of this magnitude.
There is some indication that the withdrawal could be a deception, an example of Russia’s tradition of blending politics and military action to deceive an adversary – their famed “maskirovka”, or masked warfare. Having learned from their own disastrous confrontations with urban conflict in Chechnya, Russia may be attempting to give Ukraine a taste of what they themselves experienced in the past. But if this is the case, it appears that Ukrainian intelligence has already caught on to their ruse.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the decision is causing division back in Moscow. While some, including the influential chief of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, are willing to see the move as pragmatic, others – like Chechen leader Kadyrov, who recently called for a “great jihad” against the people of Ukraine – are likely to be less tolerant of the setback.
This division speaks to both the material and symbolic value of the city. The largest population centre captured in the course of the special military operation, it represents a hub of industry and agriculture as well as a port with access to both the Black Sea and the adjoining Dnieper. Critically, if Ukraine is able to retake it, it puts them within striking distance of Crimea.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, can ill afford another humiliation – losing the city would compromise his hold on the illegally annexed Zaporizhzhia region. Yet a costly fight would further deplete his already mauled land forces. Following a disastrous recent advance by Russia’s elite forces in the north it may be the case that military leadership is now taking steps to preserve what seasoned soldiers they have left.
Instead, the coming months will probably see Russian forces avoiding the prospect of decisive confrontation while contesting the war in other ways, such as their drone attacks on civilian infrastructure. They may additionally bet on Nato aid dwindling over the winter months, hoping that economic pressures and energy shortages force Ukraine’s supporters to refocus on their own populations.
For their part, Ukraine’s military planners would be keen to keep on the offensive. The president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is also mindful that a deadlock might see western military support dry up. Ukrainian leadership has been steadfast in its pledge to retake all occupied territories – including Crimea, which was annexed in 2014.
Success in Kherson represents a test of a different kind, however. While the US and other key allies have supported Ukraine so far, it remains to be seen if this commitment extends to the recapture of territory Russia claims to have annexed earlier. An advance much further would make the recapture of Crimea a real possibility – and there is speculation regarding Russia’s next move if that looks likely, with concern it might result in a nuclear response. Fear of such a reaction might cause Ukraine’s supporters to consider their options.
In the short term, the flow of support is likely to continue, but the long-term outlook is more complicated. In the US, a significant portion of the public feels too much is being sent overseas. Given the posturing of the Republican party on this issue, some – including Russian leadership – speculated that the US midterms would represent a critical moment. Of course, the US president, Joe Biden, has also had to head off members of his own party who have made it clear that they would prefer a negotiated settlement.
US presidents do make mistakes, of course, but after the disastrous result of the withdrawal of US support for the former government of Afghanistan, expecting the same mistake to be repeated twice in the same administration is wishful thinking.
Whatever unfolds to the south of Kherson, Ukraine can probably rely on the flow of arms and support for at least a little longer.