Russia says it is retreating from the Ukrainian city of Kherson, potentially abandoning a key southern city it has occupied since close to the start of the war.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Wednesday that Russian troops would withdraw to the eastern side of the Dnieper River, territory that Russia still controls.
Ukrainian officials expressed some skepticism about a Russian retreat; they had recently worried that, though Russia had shown signs of a possible withdrawal, it might instead be a feint to lure Ukrainian forces into a costly urban battle. So the sentiment among Ukrainian leaders was basically: Ukraine will confirm a full-on Russian withdrawal when it sees it happen. Ukraine is “liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted.
Actions speak louder than words. We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight. A part of the ru-group is preserved in the city, and additional reserves are charged to the region. is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) November 9, 2022
Zelenskyy said Wednesday that “there is a lot of joy in the information space today, and it is clear why.”
“But our emotions must be restrained, always during war,” he added.
Even if there is some doubt about Russia’s exact moves, Moscow pulling out of the city of Kherson would represent a political and symbolic win for Ukraine — and another incredible defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“You’re withdrawing from the biggest prize that you took after the invasion. That is the only big city, that’s Kherson, the capital of the province, and you’re withdrawing from there,” said Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities. “So how this can be spun as an act of strategic genius, I don’t know.”
Russian troops seized the city of Kherson in the early days after Putin launched his war in Ukraine, and it was the only regional capital held by Russia. In late September, Putin announced he had annexed four regions of Ukraine, including Kherson, and incorporated them into the Russian Federation. Though the international community broadly condemned these as the illegal land grabs they were, Russia’s possible retreat from this regional capital also shows the hollowness of Putin’s territorial claims, and undercuts his propaganda about liberating parts of Ukraine.
“It’s another turning point,” said John Spencer, a retired Army officer and chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum. “It’s the only regional capital city that Russia was able to take, which it took in the opening moments of the war, [but] they are not able to hold.”
For Ukraine, “it’s more of a political win than it is a battlefield win,” he added. “But it’s still a major win for sure.”
Indeed, if Russia does move to the opposite bank of the Dnieper River, it would not come as a huge shock — Ukraine has been grinding toward this for some time. The Ukrainian military launched a counteroffensive to retake Kherson this summer, and the Ukrainian military has been chipping away at Russia’s position in Ukraine’s south for weeks and weeks, steadily advancing in Kherson and blowing up key crossings on the Dnieper that squeezed Russia’s ability to resupply.
Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who commands Russian forces in Ukraine, acknowledged this Wednesday, saying the decision to move to the opposite bank was not easy, “but at the same time we will save the lives of our military personnel and the combat capability of our forces.”
The victory in Kherson is also a tale of the two wars
The liberation of the city of Kherson — if that is what it is — will shift the narratives for both Russia and Ukraine. It could also shift how either side approaches this latest phase of the war as winter approaches.
For Russia, getting out of the city is another massive setback in its ill-conceived war. (Again, just a reminder that Russian troops still control a chunk of the Kherson region.) Yet Putin has responded to past embarrassments by terrorizing the Ukrainian people — including indiscriminate bombing campaigns, sometimes far away from the front lines. These Russian attacks have also deliberately targeted critical civilian and energy infrastructure, such as water and electricity. Zelenskyy said in early November that Russia has damaged about 40 percent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The mayor of Kyiv has warned that people should be prepared for a worst-case scenario where the entire city could lose power or water.
Russia’s strategy is about suffering: for people, to diminish morale and the population’s support for Ukraine’s war effort; and for the economy, to crush it so that Ukraine can’t meet the needs of its people and is even more reliant on the West — a West that is also dealing with cost of living, inflation, and energy crises as winter approaches. The strategy is cruel, but, as experts pointed out, so far it has failed to do anything more than harden attitudes against Russia. And it has not, at all, boosted Russia’s fortunes on the battlefield. “Despite that massive wave of terrorist attacks that [Putin] just recently did, he’s still losing ground,” Spencer said.
Russia retreating from the city of Kherson may also help make Ukraine’s case that its strategy of retaking Ukrainian territory and expelling Russia is the right course. As Menon said, “it’s a big morale boost,” even as Russian and Ukrainian troops face fiercer and more critical battles in the east.
It will likely also bolster Ukraine’s case to the West that it can possibly win those battles if it can just get more Western military support, including advanced weapons and air defense systems to protect against Russian barrages targeting infrastructure. “They also have a very strong card to play, which is: you’re supplying us — but we’re delivering, we’re showing we’re capable of winning,” Menon said.
That may also strengthen Ukraine’s case for continued economic aid, which it is also relying on. On Wednesday, according to Reuters, Ukraine’s economy minister Yulia Svyrydenko said Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure would shrink Ukraine’s gross domestic product by 39 percent, more than the 35 percent previously forecast. Ukraine’s successes on the front lines overshadow Russia’s economic warfare, but right now, this may be where Ukraine is most vulnerable — perhaps, in part, because it is winning on the battlefield.