Russia’s Defense Ministry says its troops are preparing to withdraw from a large part of the occupied Ukrainian region of Kherson, in a move that’s humiliating but also – after the developments of recent weeks – unsurprising.
The plan would give up thousands of square kilometers (including some of Ukraine’s best farmland) that Russia has occupied since the early days of the invasion, and was formally declared its territory just five weeks ago.
At a choreographed meeting in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Sergey Surovikin – the recently appointed commander of what Moscow refers to as its “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine – put the best possible face on the withdrawal.
Since August, Russian troops have killed 9,500 Ukrainian soldiers in Kherson and successfully repelled “up to 80% to 90% of enemy missiles,” Surovikin claimed.
Nevertheless, a retreat would protect the lives of civilians and troops, he said.
“I understand that this is a very difficult decision, but at the same time we will preserve the most important thing – the lives of our servicemen and the overall combat capability of the grouping of troops, which is futile to keep on the right (west) bank in a limited area,” Surovikin said.
Russian commentators and officials have carefully avoided the word retreat, spinning the “withdrawal” as a smart military call to regroup on the eastern side of the river Dnipro, in defensible positions that Ukrainian forces would struggle to destroy.
It’s not known at this stage how the Ukrainians will respond. Their troops on the southern front lines are exhausted and the land ahead of them is likely to be heavily mined. Pursuing the Russian troops would shed more blood, as would any fighting in dense areas like Kherson city.
Ukraine will “move very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late on Wednesday in his daily video message.
“We are gradually moving to the south, strengthening our positions. Step by step,” he said.
The announcement in Moscow did not provoke the chest-thumping that accompanied previous reversals.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has often been critical of the Defense Ministry and the high command, said Surovikin had saved a thousand soldiers and “made a difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers.”
Kadyrov added that Kherson was a difficult place to fight, especially without guaranteed resupply routes.
In the summer, when Ukraine received longer-range rockets such as the US HIMARS, it set about degrading as many river bridges, railroad hubs and supply depots deep behind Russian lines as it could reach. The Russians resorted to pontoon bridges – even submerging railway cars – but getting munitions and other supplies across the Dnipro became increasingly difficult.
But not everyone accepted the Kherson withdrawal with equanimity. Hawkish Russian commentator Sergey Markov described the planned relinquishment of Kherson on his Telegram channel as “the largest geopolitical defeat of Russia since the collapse of the USSR. The political consequences of this huge defeat will be really big.”
“The main reason for this defeat is the rejection of a real war and the catastrophic delay in making the necessary decisions,” he continued.
Kadyrov seemed to agree that delays had whittled down Moscow’s options. Fighting in Kherson required “a stable regular supply of ammunition and the formation of a strong, reliable rear,” he said. “Why was this not done from the first days of the special operation?”
Back in October, when Surovikin got the job as overall commander of the operation, he warned that difficult choices must be faced. The Kharkiv debacle – which saw Ukrainian forces sweep across much of the region in one week – predated his appointment, and he may have been wary that Kherson could quickly become another embarrassment.
On October 18, in an interview with Russian state news agency TASS, Surovikin said that plans for Kherson would depend on the “evolving military-tactical situation,” which he described as “already very difficult.”
“We will act consciously, in a timely manner, not excluding the adoption of difficult decisions,” he said.
Discretion, it seems, became the better part of valor. Over the past two weeks, Russian forces have dug in on the east bank. Pillbox guardhouses have become a common sight; trenches appeared on satellite imagery and civilians were unceremoniously removed from homes close to the river.
If and when Russian troops do withdraw to the east bank, their supply lines will become easier and they will regain defense in depth. Any attempt by Ukrainian forces to cross the Dnipro would be costly to the point of prohibitive.
Russia would retain control of 60 per cent of the Kherson region, including the coastline along the Sea of Azov. So long as Moscow’s troops control and fortify the Dnipro’s east bank, Ukrainian forces will struggle to damage or disrupt the canal that carries fresh water to Crimea.
Surovikin’s priority appears to be stabilizing Russia’s defensive lines after a difficult few months. He made the point on Wednesday that the forces being pulled out of Kherson “will be used for active operations, including offensive ones, in other directions in the operation zone.”
There is always a chance that the Moscow meeting on Wednesday was designed to lure Ukrainian forces into a trap, and that the Russians don’t intend to abandon the west bank altogether. Senior Ukrainian officials have certainly been skeptical. But the tactical situation for Russian forces, pushed into a shrinking pocket above the river, has gone from challenging to near-impossible in weeks.
The larger political failure in Kherson can’t be camouflaged. Russian-appointed officials have run Kherson city and environs since March. They have distributed Russian passports to anyone who would have one, talked about the ruble replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia, and organized the wholesale theft of grain.
Senior officials arrived from Moscow to discuss Kherson’s integration into the “Russian world.” And then there was the illegal and implausible referendum in September, followed by the pomp of the ceremony in Moscow annexing Kherson and three other regions.
On September 30, Putin said he had a message for Kyiv. “People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever.”
“We will defend our land with all the powers and means at our disposal.”
There again, a week is a long time in politics. The celebrations orchestrated by Putin little over a month ago have been confounded in one region, just as Ukrainian forces begin to make inroads in Luhansk as well.