On Wednesday, top brass in the Russian military announced their forces’ withdrawal from the strategically important Ukrainian city of Kherson.
Russian forces now appear to have retreated to the east bank of the River Dnipro. The decision to pull back follows gains made during a counter-offensive by Ukrainian troops.
This setback is significant for Moscow. Kherson was the first major city captured by the Russian military after the invasion began in February. The city’s loss poses operational and strategic difficulties for the Russian military and will make it harder for Putin to present the illusion of success in Ukraine.
Russia announces withdrawal
The decision to withdraw Russian forces became public during a televised military briefing aired on Russia 24, a state-owned Russian news channel. During the televised event, the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine Sergey Surovikin addressed the Russian minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu.
Surovikin stressed the need to withdraw from Kherson and take up a new defensive position. He told Shoigu, “I have assessed the situation, and I propose creating a defense along the left bank of the Dnipro”.
Shoigu agreed and instructed Surovikin to “Proceed with troop withdrawal and take all measures for the safe transfer of equipment, weapons, and personnel across the Dnipro River”.
The televised briefing was political theatre. The actual briefing would likely have taken place hours or days before. Putin was notably absent.
Why the retreat from Kherson?
In the late summer and early Autumn, Ukrainian artillery strikes against Russian targets in Kherson began to show signs of success.
In September, Ukrainian intelligence intercepted a phone call between a Russian army officer and his wife. The officer’s words suggest that Russian morale in the occupied city was low.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense made the intercepted phone call public. The Russian officer reportedly told his wife, “I’ve already smoked half a pack of cigarettes, I’m all pale… All the bridges were blown up…everything was blown up, we’re just in a complete mess here”.
Kherson has three bridges and the Ukrainian military has been pounding them with artillery. Effective fire from HIMARS missiles, provided by the United States, appears to have taken a toll on the Russian position.
When those bridges were damaged and destroyed, Russian troops were forced to construct pontoon bridges or transport personnel and equipment via ferry. However, Ukrainian artillery targeted these too.
Damage and destruction of the bridges have made Russian operations in Kherson more complicated. Moving supplies and personnel to positions they are needed would have become slower. If the Ukrainians advanced on Kherson, the Russians may have been at a distinct tactical and operational disadvantage as well.
Moreover, without a way for Russian forces to speedily cross the Dnipro, the Ukrainians would have a better chance of cutting them off and surrounding them in the city. For these reasons, Russian commanders may have deemed the defense of Kherson to be untenable.
The situation now
Ukrainian forces are approaching news of the Russian retreat with caution.
“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. [Ukraine] is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements,” said Mykhailo Mykhailovych Podolyak, advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on Twitter.
Open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests that Russian forces are preparing new defensive positions outside of Kherson. Satellite imagery also shows them constructing three lines of trenches and bunkers on the right bank of the River Dnipro.
Russian commanders have likely reasoned that a defensive line across the river is more likely to repel a Ukrainian attack than a defensive setup in the city.
Having set up new defensive lines, Russian forces are reportedly blowing up remaining bridges across the Dnipro. This is probably intended to slow the Ukrainian advance and delay the counter-offensive.
Kherson is of immense strategic value. The E97 road runs directly between Kherson and occupied Crimea which Russia cannot afford to lose. With the loss of Kherson, the Russian military is in a difficult position, as it decreases their ability to threaten cities such as Odesa and Mykolaiv with access to the Black Sea.
Having failed to take Kyiv, an alternative Russian strategy could be to cut off Ukraine from the sea, but for that, they need to be in a position to attack coastal cities and ports.
The retreat is deeply humiliating and could complicate Putin’s political position at home. In September Putin announced the decision to mobilize an additional 300,000 reservists. The move will make greater manpower available but could cause domestic unrest.
Thus far, Kherson is the only regional Ukrainian capital that has been captured by Russia. Its loss would be a severe blow to Moscow and could undermine public support for the war.
If Ukrainian forces are able to move in and capture the abandoned city, this will provide Kyiv with a timely symbolic victory. President Zelensky needs to maintain military and economic support from Ukraine’s Western allies. Evidence of success on the battlefield may help to sure up support for aiding Ukraine.