Two weeks after taking overall command of Russian forces in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin (known as “General Armageddon“) shared a hard truth with Russian state media. Tough decisions, he said, would have to be made if the military situation in Kherson degenerated. By “tough decisions,” Surovikin wasn’t specific, but the implication was that at some point Russian commanders may have no choice but to order a controlled withdrawal from Kherson, located on the western bank of the Dnipro River.
That time has apparently arrived. On Nov. 9, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu took Surovikin’s advice and agreed to pull Russian troops out of the city, redeploying them across the river to the east bank, where stronger defensive lines are being established. Although the Russians spent the previous weeks drawing down their forces, evacuating civilians deeper into Russian-occupied territory and removing the collaborationist administration out of the city, the news came as a shock to Ukrainians, who have spent months methodically (and painfully) destroying the supply lines, ammunition depots, and command-and-control facilities Russia needs to sustain a presence. Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, was so dumbfounded about the Russian departure that he didn’t believe it as first: “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” Podolyak tweeted.
Russia’s decision to pull out of Kherson came as a surprise for another reason—this same decision was mulled over in September and ultimately overruled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who didn’t want to order yet another withdrawal at a time when Russian troops were frantically running away from their positions in Kharkiv. After all, Kherson was far more important to the Russians than Kharkiv ever was. The agricultural oblast is the southernmost territory leading into Crimea, which Russia annexed eight years earlier. The Kakhovka dam, responsible for Crimea’s water supply and about as large as the Great Salt Lake in Utah, was also only about 45 miles up the river from Kherson. While the Russians still control the dam, the impending Ukrainian capture of Kherson will improve the chances of eventually retaking this crucial facility. It’s hard to see the Russians giving it away without a fight.
The latest Russian withdrawal adds to a mountain of tactical defeats since the early summer months, but it’s undoubtedly one of Putin’s biggest embarrassments. Putin, after all, annexed the entire Kherson oblast (along with three others) in late September. Yet about six weeks after that announcement, when smiling, suited dignitaries were holding hands and chanting, “Russia! Russia!” in the Grand Kremlin Palace, Russian forces are evacuating land Moscow now views as part of the Russian Federation. It’s not only a symbolic setback, but one that places Ukrainian troops within firing range of Russian logistical points in Crimea, as Rob Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Organization observed. The Ukrainians, of course, have already struck various targets in Crimea, including an Oct. 8 attack against the 12-mile long Kerch Bridge connecting the peninsula with mainland Russia. But once the Ukrainian army settles into Kherson, they will no longer have to rely on covert operations behind enemy lines.
Despite all the problems this drawdown poses, the Russian military high command clearly believes holding the west bank wasn’t worth the cost. The constant Ukrainian strikes against bridges spanning the Dnipro River meant that basic re-supply operations were becoming a chore. Utilizing boats, ferries, and makeshift pontoon bridges, already under fire from the Ukrainians, would become untenable once winter temperatures froze the river. The entire re-supply operation would slow to a crawl, providing Ukrainian units with a better opportunity to pick off the Russian troops unlucky enough to staff it. One doesn’t need to have a military mind in the mold of Sun Tzu or Carl von Clausewitz to recognize that throwing tens of thousands of recruits into an area that couldn’t be easily re-supplied was going to be a major problem. Even with a partial mobilization of 300,000 personnel, the Russian military can’t afford to throw men and material into a meat grinder, especially if it hopes to resume offensive operations next year.
How the war progresses, only time will tell. The Ukrainians remain on the upswing, and their successes on the battlefield are only reinforcing Zelensky’s belief that any negotiations with Russia on ending the conflict should be undertaken on Ukraine’s terms. Kyiv is only willing to talk when every inch of Ukrainian land is brought back under its control—and not a moment sooner. In essence, the Ukrainian government is calling for Russia to leave in defeat and disgrace, something the Kremlin won’t contemplate. The looming victory in Kherson will afford Kyiv even more leverage to press its demands.
Capturing Kherson is one thing. Capturing all of Ukraine, including Crimea, is another. U.S. military support to the tune of $18 billion, Ukrainian bravery and Russian incompetence notwithstanding, officials in the U.S. and Europe still don’t believe the Ukrainian military possesses the capacity and manpower to win the war conventionally. The same goes for the Russian military, which has exposed itself to be a 21st century iteration of the old, clunky Soviet army. A lot of wars throughout history have ended through diplomatic settlement, and this war is unlikely to be any different. The question is how long it will take the combatants to come around.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Newsweek.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.