by Brecht Jonkers (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 52, No. 10, Jumada' al-Ula', 1444)
Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu announced on November 9 the withdrawal of Russian forces from the city of Kherson and the west bank of the Dnieper river. This surprised many amateur spectators and dyed-in-the-wool analysts. Shoygu made the withdrawal announced following the advice of General Sergey Surovikin, commander of Russia’s Special Military Operation army forces.
The news sent western mainstream media outlets into a frenzy of unbridled victory celebrations. Some even claimed an imminent victory across the board for Ukrainian forces. The fact is Ukraine did not win the battle for Kherson. Instead, it had lost large numbers of troops and equipment in a failed offensive in precisely this region not long ago. This fact was conveniently forgotten.
The same went for the fact that Russia still maintains control over the entire territory of Lugansk. Its forces are also steadily advancing in Donetsk at the time of writing. The key city of Artyomovsk (called Bakhmut by the Kiev regime) is already partially taken by Russian forces.
True, it cannot be denied that the withdrawal of Russian forces from a territory that was only months ago recognised as a sovereign part of the Russian Federation, is a major political embarrassment for Kremlin. But there is a deeper point to analyze here: why would Moscow allow such an embarrassment to take place without any Ukrainian victories in the field justifying it?
Let us take a look at the matters as they stand. There has been no Russian military defeat in Kherson to speak of, definitely not one that would warrant the displacement of thousands of forces. The city of Kherson was not the scene of any battles, and generally had been firmly in Russian hands for months. Further north, Russian troops were advancing steadily in Donetsk, taking Pavlovka and also advancing in the aforementioned Artyomovsk.
The withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson was reported to have taken place in a very orderly manner, with troops crossing the Dnieper and taking position on the east bank. Even the British ministry of defence has officially admitted as much, and went as far as crediting General Surovikin for the impressive neatness of the move. This is not an army in flight, as western propagandists and Russian doomsayers had been proclaiming since the beginning of the month (November). It seems to have been a strategic decision made at the very top of the command chain.
In fact, the decision came as such a surprise to Kiev that the Ukrainian authorities didn’t seem to believe the reports at first. Volodymyr Zelensky declared that “the enemy does not give us gifts, does not make ‘goodwill gestures’”, and his skepticism was shared by many both inside and outside of Ukraine. When Ukrainian forces eventually did advance into the western part of Kherson and the titular provincial capital, this was reportedly done in a very slow and careful manner. Troops were extremely wary of their surroundings and feared an imminent Russian counter strike or carefully planned ambush.
For a while, the idea of a Russian ambush or a carefully laid trap was popular among supporters of the Russian Special Military Operation. This fits into the narrative of Vladimir Putin always having a trick up his sleeve in the geopolitical game of “5D chess” that he is said to be playing. However, for all Putin’s undeniable strategic acumen, it seems relatively clear that the original Kherson advance of the SMO had bitten off more than Russia could chew at this point in the conflict.
General Surovikin himself was a notable critic of the position of the Russian Armed Forces in Kherson since his appointment as chief commander in early October. In an interview after he took office, Surovikin said that “the situation in the area of the ‘Special Military Operation’ can be described as tense,” adding that in Kherson it was particularly “difficult”. The general had also stated back then that an “organized displacement” of pro-Russian civilians was taking place in some areas of Kherson.
Looking closer at Russian positions prior to the withdrawal, it is easy to understand why Kherson was a thorn in the side of the Russian military command. Being a bridgehead sticking out of the general frontlines, the west side of the Dnieper and Kherson city itself were a logistical challenge for Russian forces. This was especially the case at a time when there had been no mobilization of reserves yet, and Russian forces were operating on limited manpower to begin with. While the partial mobilization order of September 21 promised to deploy an additional 300,000 troops, its practical implementation needed time. As a result, some Russian forces were more or less stuck on the west side of the river, fending off a constant barrage of Ukrainian attacks while having to rely on a supply line that needed to cross the Dnieper.
A river crossing is always a risky endeavor during wartime. Ukrainian artillery were keenly aware of the vulnerability of Russian convoys. It is quite likely that the initial Russian push for Kherson was done with the goal of using the bridgehead for future offensives towards Nikolayev, and perhaps from there on to the historical Russian city of Odessa. However, no such offensives have taken place yet, and it seems unlikely to be part of Russia’s immediate strategic planning.
The question, therefore, arises: why hold on to the west bank and the city of Kherson at all? The main reason is self-explanatory: an overwhelming majority of Kherson residents had voted for joining the Russian Federation in the September referendum. As such, they are considered to be Russian citizens by Moscow. It does not need explaining that leaving behind thousands of Russian citizens, especially those who only received their citizenship of the Federation weeks prior, does not look good both domestically and abroad. Besides, the Ukraine regime infested with neo-Nazis is sure to want to take “revenge” on those it considers traitors to Kiev.
This indeed is precisely what happened immediately after Ukrainian forces entered Kherson. It is, however, worth mentioning that Russia evacuated all the residents of Kherson territory west of the Dnieper river prior to military evacuation. This ensured that a maximum number of people fearful of Ukrainian retaliation could safely leave.
True, giving up the Kherson bridgehead was politically embarrassing. It made the Kremlin lose face in the sight of the international community. The mainstream western media went into an overdrive of propaganda claiming imminent victory for Zelensky’s EuroMaidan clique.
From a strictly military point of view, the withdrawal, however, made perfect sense. The Kherson bridgehead offered little or no strategic advantage for Russian Armed Forces. Rather than being useful in the preparation for a wider operation, it had turned a part of the Russian military into sitting ducks. They were stuck defending a city separated from the rest of the frontline.
Withdrawing to the east bank of the Dnieper not only neutralized the obstacle of crossing the river with supply convoys, it turned the river itself into an extra defence for Russian troops in the rest of Kherson oblast. It is possible that Russia could have held on to Kherson and its surroundings as they have already beaten back numerous Ukrainian offensives in the past months.
The question, however, is what would be the point of this from a purely military perspective? It would have kept much-needed Russian forces bogged down in a defensive battle costing many lives. These were saved by Russia’s temporary withdrawal.
It needs recalling that Ukraine has repeatedly shown that it has no moral qualms about sending troops into suicidal attacks even if the possibility of victory is remote. Kiev’s backers and handlers in the west in particular have shown that they are more than willing to fight to the last Ukrainian if it damages Russia. Consequently the cold, harsh calculation of warfare has won over political concerns and worries about the Kremlin’s image in the decision of Suvorikin and the Russian high command.
At the end of the day, the vast majority of Kherson territory is still in Russian hands at the time of writing, and there is no indication of imminent Ukrainian plans to advance east of the Dnieper. In fact, Ukraine has launched a major evacuation effort of civilians from both its own zone of control in Kherson and even in Nikolayev, which indicates that Kiev is far from comfortable about the future of its position in the region. Furthermore, one of the main reasons for Kherson’s strategic importance to the Special Military Operation is its location adjacent to the Russian territory of Crimea.
The connection between the Russian heartland and Crimea through Donetsk, Zaporozhia and Kherson east of the Dnieper remains firmly under Russian control, and is not under any threat at present.
Military concerns can result in calculated and seemingly cold-hearted decisions. Unfortunately for the pro-Russian population of western Kherson, this has thrown their homeland, and even their lives, into peril at the hands of the Bandera-adoring forces of Kiev. Regardless of this, the doomsaying predictions of imminent Russian collapse have no basis in reality.
Russia is still advancing on the Donetsk frontlines. Its recent missile strikes on critical infrastructure have been much heavier and more efficient than at anytime in this conflict. The Zelensky regime has admitted that half of Ukraine’s energy system has been destroyed, with Kiev being unable to provide for the electricity and heating needs of at least 10 million people. In what appears to be a desperate last-ditch effort to trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and create an official state of war between NATO and Russia, Ukraine has resorted to blaming Russia for a Ukrainian missile that landed on Polish soil. This rather pathetic show all around was shut down even by Joe Biden himself.
The conflict in Ukraine is far from over. It looks as if it is going to take quite some time before the Special Military Operation ends. Contrary to the “shock and awe” style war fiction that many in the west have been led to believe, real conflict usually does not ‘blitz’ its way to victory.
Russia is advancing slowly but steadily, while Ukraine is trying to hold on with whatever force it can still muster. This conflict is bound to take quite a while longer. At this point, neither side seems to be set for imminent collapse, least of all Russia.