Ten mistakes refuted by the victory in Kherson

A week after the liberation of Kherson, it was time for an interim assessment: how is Ukraine doing in the war against Russia? And what knowledge can be gained from the success in the south for the future?

On Náměstí Svobody in Kherson, a young man celebrates the departure of the Russians. In addition to the Ukrainian flag, the EU flag also flies.

Paula Bronstein/Getty

With the collapse of the Russian occupation regime in Kherson a week ago, Ukraine won another significant victory. To appreciate this, it is worth putting it in context with the course of the war so far. For the key moments of the last months, five great achievements of Ukrainians should be highlighted:

  • Victory in the Battle of Kyiv (March): By repelling a pincer attack on the capital, the Ukrainians foiled a Russian plan to remove Zelensky’s government and quickly decide on war. After heavy fighting, the Kremlin had to withdraw its troops from the Kyiv region at the end of March.
  • Defense of the advance to Odessa (March): Another turning point that is often underestimated was the failure of Russia’s Odessa operation. The capture of the third largest city would completely cut off Ukraine from the sea. The victory of the Ukrainians in the Battle of Mykolaiv was decisive. This allowed them to prevent the attackers from crossing the Southern Bug and proceeding to Odessa.

Five major Ukrainian victories in the war against Russia

Territories occupied by Russia

Crimea (annexed by Russia)

  • Stabilization of the front in Donbass (July): After shifting the war to the east, the Russians initially prevailed. But since July (occupation of Lisičansk) they are largely stuck. The stabilization of the front despite the initially glaring artillery inferiority is another great success of the Ukrainians, albeit at the cost of heavy losses.
  • Counteroffensive at Kharkiv (September): By recapturing more than 8,000 square kilometers east of Kharkiv, the Ukrainians demonstrated for the first time their ability to launch a large-scale counteroffensive. The capture of the strategically important city of Izjum thwarted Russia’s plan for a pincer attack in the Donbass.
  • Liberation of Kherson (November): By winning the battle for the only provincial capital that Russia has captured since February, Ukraine’s military demonstrated another capability: long-range warfare. The operation failed through a frontal attack, but through the systematic destruction of Russian supply routes. This forced the opponent to withdraw after a good three months.

The victory at Kherson is significant not only because it meant that Russian troops lost any presence west of the Dnieper. It also provides insights that disprove the hasty assumptions of the Western public. Ten such fallacies and misinterpretations deserve special mention:

  • “Ukraine will not get back lost territories”: Related to this is the “well-intentioned” advice that Ukraine would do better to agree to peace rather than sacrifice more lives fighting a superior adversary. This view ignores the fact that the leadership in Kyiv is constantly strengthening its negotiating position with successes like in Kherson. Otherwise, it would have to accept huge losses of territory, which it would not survive politically.

    From afar, she likes observers like Elon Musk — the richest man in the world and the sender of a own “peace plan” – it seems irrelevant who owns a certain strip of land on the globe. However, the residents of Kherson, who have just been freed from the reign of terror, see in this a difference of existential significance. Ukrainians have now recaptured more than half of the territory occupied since February, which pessimists denied.

  • “Sympathy with Russia prevails in the south of Ukraine”: This opinion, which prevailed before the war, is kept alive by Kremlin propaganda. President Putin cites historical ties with southern Ukraine, which was once known as Novorossiya. The fact that even a few years ago the Russian language was dominant in the south and east of the country also leads to erroneous conclusions. Russian-speaking should not be confused with Russian-friendly; this is already shown by the example of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

    There may have been many cases of voluntary or forced cooperation with the occupiers in Kherson, but at the end of February the invaders were not greeted with joy. On the contrary, demonstrations against the occupiers were repeated. The celebrations in Kherson last weekend, on the other hand, make it clear how clearly sympathy is given.

  • “Arms deliveries only prolong bloodshed”: This argument, advanced by former German Bundeswehr chief Harald Kujat, is used to criticize the support of Ukraine with Western war material. Western weapons are usually assumed to have an escalation effect. However, the Kherson operation showed a completely different effect.

    Thanks to rocket artillery supplied by the US (Himars and M270 rocket launchers), the Ukrainian armed forces managed to impassable the Dnieper bridges in the south and establish a military turnaround. The position of the Russian troops on the right bank of the Dnieper became untenable. Western weapons did not prolong the war for the population there, on the contrary, they ended it for the time being.

Already in August, Ukrainian artillery attacks damaged the Antonivka bridge (above) so badly that the occupiers in Kherson had to rely on fins for supplies.

Already in August, Ukrainian artillery attacks damaged the Antonivka bridge (above) so badly that the occupiers in Kherson had to rely on fins for supplies.

Imago/Ria Novosti

  • “Russia will keep its bridgehead by any means necessary”: After the capture of Kherson, the general secretary of the United Russia Kremlin party, Andrey Turchak, brought with him the news that Russia “came here forever.” In fact, for strategic reasons, there were many indications that Moscow would retain this bridgehead on the country’s largest river and expand it if possible. From there, the possibilities opened up for offensives to the west and north, as far as Kiev.

    As recently as October, Russia sent additional troops to Kherson, including elite units such as airborne troops. Thus, Western military experts were not sure whether Russia would give up this terrain without a fight. In the end, however, that’s exactly what happened. In the long term, Moscow will probably lose the ability to launch new offensives from the south.

Russian propaganda poster in Kherson with the slogan «Russia is here forever!».

Russian propaganda poster in Kherson with the slogan «Russia is here forever!».

Efrem Lukatsky / AP

  • “The conquest of annexed territory is a red line”: This is based on the assumption that Putin cannot afford to lose “Russian territory” under any circumstances. In September, Russia annexed four Ukrainian provinces in violation of international law. The Kherson offensive was therefore, from the Kremlin’s point of view, an attack on Russia itself. Nationalists and state propagandists called for the use of nuclear weapons against the advancing Ukrainians. In fact, nothing changed militarily as a result of the annexation. Moscow voluntarily relinquished control over the annexed areas around Kherson.
  • “With General Surovikin, Russia’s War Intensifies”: The commander-in-chief, appointed in September, has many fans among hardliners in Moscow. Surovikin seems courageous, but even he cannot simply magically remove the military’s structural weaknesses. His units are still below him. The Retreat from Kherson bears Surovikin’s handwriting. The general probably reckons that the units freed up by this can be used more effectively on other sectors of the front.

  • “Newly mobilized troops change the balance of power”: With the partial mobilization ordered in September, Moscow wants to strengthen the professional army stationed in Ukraine by 300,000 conscripts. According to official data, 87,000 men had already been sent to the war zone by the end of October. According to some reports, the newly mobilized units were also deployed near Kherson. However, no clear effect of mobilization can be seen yet, which may be due to insufficient training, poor equipment and lack of combat morale. Mobilization remains a threat to Ukraine, but at least on the Kherson front it has been ineffective.
  • “Nothing can be done militarily against the annexation of Crimea”: The recapture of the peninsula occupied in 2014 is currently hard to imagine. But this fall, things changed. Thanks to the advance on the Dnieper, the Ukrainians can now shell almost the entire area north of Crimea with their rocket artillery. They attack nodes and bases daily. This will make it difficult to supply the peninsula from the north and reduce the value of the “land bridge” created during the war from Russia to Crimea.

    Since the bomb attack on the Kerch bridge in October, supplies from the east have also been hit, revealing a hitherto unknown Russian vulnerability on the peninsula. This in itself will not end the annexation, but it will give Kyiv another power argument in future negotiations. In addition, newly built tank traps and trenches on Crimea’s northern border stoked Russian fears of a Ukrainian offensive.

  • “The liberation of Kherson is the greatest victory of the Ukrainians to date”: This thesis presented by the professional magazine “Foreign Policy” seems unfounded. As excited as Ukraine is to return to Kherson, the significance of recent events should not be overstated. Unlike other major Ukrainian successes, the Kherson victory has had limited consequences for now. The Dnieper is probably too big a natural obstacle for the Ukrainians to advance across the river in the foreseeable future. It is more likely that both sides will move their troops to the east and meet again there.
  • “Putin has lost all touch with reality”: The Kremlin ruler’s decision to invade Ukraine long ago proved to be a catastrophic mistake. It was variously presented as the act of a madman. However, the withdrawal from Kherson, however politically painful, proves that Putin is still capable of cool thinking. He could have ordered the army to hold out in Kherson, delaying the moment of shame. But that would expose his troops to a hopeless attrition roll. Putin remains a rational adversary, which does not make him any less dangerous.

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