THE CASE OF KHERSON: Is the Russian retreat a defeat or part of a larger scheme?

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The retreat from Kherson and the following decision to withdraw all the Russian forces from the right bank of the Dniepr seem to reinforce the idea that the course of the tide as turn in favor of Kiev and soon Moscow will be forced to open peace negotiations. Yet numerous elements suggest that war will still be very long until one of the main opponents will have reached its political aims.

A strategic point

Since the beginning of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, the city of Kherson has played a strategic role. Located at the mouth of the Dnepr, the capital of the region  is not only the river gate which allows the navigation of goods towards the Black Sea, but it can also threaten the connections with the Crimea. Its location is a stronghold, from which it is possible to conquer (or impede) the southwestern Ukraine till the ports of Odessa and the rebel states of Transnistria.

It was therefore no coincidence that the city was the main target of the Russian forces in the south from the beginning of the clashes; and indeed Ukrainians themselves have tried to re-take it back in the following months at any cost. As it can be recalled, the Kherson region was part of a counter-offensive by the Ukrainian side during this summer, which however failed to bring about any significant change on the front and someone spoke about a diversion to “trick” Russia.

Since August, there has been constant rumors of a new military offensive before winter arrives in order to retake Kherson. On the one hand, Russian forces were preparing for an eventual confrontation by reinforcing defense lines in the sector, while Ukrainians were massing in preparation. It seemed possible that this incoming counter-offensive would have begun close to the Midterm elections, in order to support the Biden administration.

Yet, despite new shipments between September and October of further Western supplies, the increased commitment of NATO – European Union help and in particular the increased assistance of the intelligence services (not to mention the influx of 10.000 men previously trained in Great Britain), something happens, or rather “does not happen”: the Ukrainian offensive does not occur.

The strange battle

The situation seemed curiously to assume the tones of an unexpected stalemate, when suddenly at the beginning of November General Surovikin decides to evacuate the civilians from the right bank of the city. In fact, given the numerical superiority of Ukrainians, it probably seemed possible for Surovikin the possibility of an initial breakthrough of the Kiev forces and therefore the need to gradually redeploy the troops towards the city. Probably someone thought that Russians would have been forced to fight in the streets of Kherson in a modern version of the battle of Stalingrad.

A drastic choice, but in the end for a good reason in view of a great battle and yet something strange began to emerge when news indicated that civilians would have been also evacuated from the left bank of the river in preparation of fortified defensive lines in that point. The situation became extremely confusing when it was reported that Russian forces were completely leaving the right side of the Dniepr of the entire sector, including therefore the part of the city located on that bank, thus leaving the Ukrainian forces a free hand to reoccupy it in a few days.

Despite an initial fear in Kiev that this withdrawal could be a trap, in the end the city was easily retaken and the action was portrayed by propaganda as a great victory, especially also due to the unusual justifications expressed by Russians. In particular those regarding difficulties to keep supplied their troops located across the river and the risk, in the event that all the bridges were destroyed, they would have been cut off from any possible retreats.

Also, another unusual thing was the reaction of two public military personalities, namely the Chechen Khadirov and Prigozhin, the head PMC Wagner group, who have always been openly very critical of the high echelons of command when there had been defeats or for the lack of incisiveness of military operations. Instead, both have shared the decision, praising General Surovikin’s wisdom to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. At this point it was therefore clear that this sudden change of events must have a high value on other levels, the question is: which one?

Secret agreements?

Initial rumors suggested that this retreat would be the price that Moscow had to pay to open a negotiation. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had been in contact with his Russian counterpart, giving the impression that the White House was pushing for a sort of a deal, recognizing Russia’s annexations east of the Dniepr, while the western bank would be returned to Kievan control. However Secretary Stoltenberg stated immediately after that it’s up to Ukraine what terms for talks with Russia are acceptable.

Furthermore this possibility seems less and less likely for a number of reasons. Firstly, the New York Times reportshow Ukraine seems to remain on the offensive, despite the desire to open a channel of peace. Zelensky in fact has recently stated that he never has never closed the doors to negotiations, but that he was ready only with a different Russia and therefore “Non-Putinian”. A new Russia ready to acknowledge it is an occupier and it must give everything back, including Crimea. An affirmation not shared by  Kremlin spokesman Peskov, who underlined how the Kherson region is now part of Russian Federation, its status is fixed and there can be no changes.

Finally, such an agreement would be a Pyrrhic victory for the Russian side. While the liberation of the Donbass would be obtained, while the east side of country would be under Moscow control, the Ukrainian question would be left substantially unresolved. Kiev would be immediately rearmed by the West and it would represent over the years a thorn on Russia’s borders, as dreamed of by Brzezinski.

A DIFFICULT CHOICE

At this point I believe the only possible interpretation left is that of a difficult operational choice. It is possible that the plans for a withdrawal/repositioning were perhaps already took into consideration much before. In fact shortly after his appointment as head of operations in Ukraine,  Surovikin emphasized in his first press conference that he no longer wanted to risk the lives of his troops unnecessarily, underlining his dissatisfaction with the Kherson front and describing the situation as “tense and difficult“.

Surovikin’s strategy is therefore probably focused on making the front more efficient, thus re-establishing a continuous battle line and less subject to the constant bombardment of bridges and river crossing sites. Hence the need to fall back on the left bank, perhaps also because the Kherson area was becoming “inefficient” for the purposes of the military operation. Ideally, such a bridgehead could have become the point for an offensive action up to Odessa, but such an operation would have required the strengthening of the military forces in Kherson, which would have increased the logistical weight .

With a very long front to manage and with the primary objective to reconquer the Donbass, Kherson had probably become a challenge to hold. Maintaining military forces across the river, with no long-term objectives, becomes a heavy burden with no obvious benefits and unless an offensive against Nikolayev was planned, such a bridgehead was militarily counterproductive, a logistical problem and a burden for the political image. Conversely, retreating to the eastern bank, the river becomes a positive force, as it acts as a natural defensive barrier.

Conclusions

Although this reconquest has been depicted as a heroic victory, on the long run it only increases Kiev’s (false) perception that a total victory is possible and Crimea and Donbass can be completely recovered in short time. Ukraine has indeed achieved some territorial gains in these months, thinking that the tide of the conflict has turn in its favor, but this could soon prove to be a dangerous illusion fueled by the false perception that they can easily defeat Russia.

Already a few days before the abandonment of Kherson, Ukrainian officials and officers seemed to have been be caught off guard by this sudden retreat. Ukraine was not prepared to pursue or exploit the situation and after the withdrawal of the Russian soldiers advanced cautiously in the vacuum. Indeed the repositioning of the Russian forces was implemented very quickly, with minimal pressure and with negligible losses. It therefore seems that Surovikin made this choice to avoid unnecessary battles in the south while he intends to prepare possible future actions in the north and in the Donbass, thus following the Russian strategy of making hard choices to optimize resources.

In conclusion, if the loss of a territory was perceived as a move in view of opening a negotiating table; or as a military defeat; or as part of broader political games, the reality instead seems to indicate that the contenders in the game are not willing to reach a preliminary agreement that can satisfy both parties in order to open a serious negotiation. It is therefore clear that this war will be resolved on the battlefield until one side will finally surrender.

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