The areas west of the Dnieper served as a strategic bridgehead. Now they are being dropped – another setback for the Kremlin. But the Kherson task also shows that Russia has learned from past mistakes.
If there is bad news to report, Putin usually presents other. On Wednesday, it was Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s turn to deliver the bad news: in a televised military briefing, he ordered the withdrawal of all troops in the Kherson region from the west bank of the Dnieper River. In doing so, Russia also gives up the strategically and symbolically important city of Kherson – the only Ukrainian provincial capital that Moscow has been able to take under its control since February.
In an apparently staged transmission, Shoigu first had the military situation explained to him by General Sergei Surovikin, Russia’s commander-in-chief in Ukraine. Kherson could no longer be supplied, Surovikin said, asking his boss to withdraw: “We are saving the lives of our soldiers and the combat readiness of our units. There is no point in keeping them in the confined space on the right bank.’
Shoigu acknowledged woodenly: “I agree with your conclusions and suggestions. For us, the lives of Russian soldiers are always a priority.” The withdrawal of troops, vehicles and material across the Dnieper should begin immediately, it said. The units would now move into prepared defensive positions on the left bank.
A strategically sound decision
While the withdrawal from Kherson is a major setback for the Kremlin and its war aims, it is not a surprise. Rumors have been circulating for weeks about the imminent withdrawal of Russian troops, which have come under increasing pressure from the Ukrainian counter-offensive. In October, the Russians began to evacuate civilians and moved the offices of their occupation administration to the other bank. Even Russian military bloggers have recently been anticipating a military retreat. Now it’s a fact.
From an operational perspective, the decision makes perfect sense. As the areas west of the Dnieper have been virtually untenable in recent weeks, the Ukrainian military has previously been gradually destroying or damaging all Dnieper river crossings with artillery and precision weapons. Supplying the costly defensive battle against the advancing Kiev troops has recently only been possible with the help of ferries.
The partial destruction of the Kerch bridge on October 8 could have been decisive. The attack, believed to have been carried out by Ukrainians, has largely disrupted one of Russia’s main land supply lines to annexed Crimea.
So the withdrawal from Kherson will actually save some soldiers from certain death in an area where there is a lot of fighting. However, General Surovikin will not be acting out of charity: he has made it clear that the forces now freed up could be used for offensives in other parts of Ukraine. Nevertheless, it cannot be assumed that Russia will be able and will make successful backups elsewhere in the near future.
Rather, the retreat suggests that Russia is digging in along better-secured defensive lines and preparing for a long fight. Surovikin already announced this in his TV appearance: he wants to strengthen the defense of the contact line and create reserves for further actions.
No hasty retreat
Although Wednesday’s decision marks another bottom of the Russian fiasco in Ukraine, it also shows that the military leadership has learned from its past mistakes. The Russians cannot be expected to hastily retreat and leave tons of war material behind, as was the case in September in the Kharkiv region. Rather, they should try to cross the river as orderly as possible while making life as difficult as possible for the advancing Ukrainians with rockets, grenades and mines.