Analysis: Russia’s withdrawal from half of Kherson is both humiliating and unsurprising

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CNN

The Russian Defense Ministry said its troops were preparing to pull out of much of Ukraine’s occupied Kherson region, in a humiliating move but also – after developments in recent weeks – unsurprisingly.

The plan would give up thousands of square kilometers (including some of Ukraine’s best farmland) that Russia has occupied since the early days of the invasion, and was officially declared its territory just five weeks ago.

In a choreographed meeting in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Sergei Surovikin – the recently appointed commander of what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine – presented the withdrawal at its best. .

Since August, Russian troops have killed 9,500 Ukrainian soldiers in Kherson and managed to repel “up to 80% to 90% of enemy missiles”, Surovikin claimed.

Nevertheless, a retreat would protect the lives of civilians and soldiers, he said.

“I understand that this is a very difficult decision, but at the same time we will preserve the most important thing – the lives of our servicemen and the overall combat capability of the group of troops, which there is no point in keeping on the right (west) bank in a limited area,” Surovikin said.

Russian commentators and officials carefully avoided the word retreat, turning the “withdrawal” into a clever military call to regroup on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, in defensible positions that Ukrainian forces would have difficulty destroying.

It is unclear at this stage how the Ukrainians will react. Their troops on the southern front lines are exhausted and the lands ahead of them are in danger of being heavily mined. Pursuing Russian troops would shed more blood, as would any fight in dense areas like the city of Kherson.

Ukraine “will move forward very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risks,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his daily video message on Wednesday evening.

“We are gradually moving south, strengthening our positions. Step by step,” he said.

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The announcement in Moscow did not provoke the punches that accompanied previous reversals.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has often criticized the defense ministry and the high command, said Surovikin saved a thousand soldiers and “made a difficult but fair choice between senseless sacrifices for loud statements and saving the priceless life of soldiers.”

Kadyrov added that Kherson was a difficult place to fight, especially without guaranteed resupply routes.

Over the summer, when Ukraine received longer-range rockets such as the US HIMARS, it set about degrading as many river bridges, rail hubs and supply depots far behind the Russian lines she could reach. The Russians resorted to pontoon bridges – even submerging railway carriages – but moving ammunition and other supplies across the Dnipro became increasingly difficult.

But not everyone accepted Kherson’s withdrawal with equanimity. Hawkish Russian commentator Sergey Markov described Kherson’s planned abandonment on his Telegram channel as “Russia’s biggest geopolitical defeat since the collapse of the USSR. The political consequences of this huge defeat will be really important.

“The main reason for this defeat is the rejection of a real war and the catastrophic delay in taking the necessary decisions,” he continued.

Kadyrov seemed to agree that the delays had narrowed Moscow’s options. Fighting in Kherson required “a steady and stable supply of ammunition and the formation of a strong and reliable rear”, he said. “Why wasn’t this done from the first days of the special operation?”

In October, when Surovikin was given the post of overall commander of the operation, he warned that tough choices had to be faced. The Kharkiv debacle – which saw Ukrainian forces sweep across much of the region in a week – preceded his appointment, and he may have feared that Kherson would quickly become another embarrassment.

On October 18, in an interview with Russian state news agency TASS, Surovikin said plans for Kherson would depend on “the development of the military-tactical situation”, which he described as “already very difficult”.

“We will act consciously, in a timely manner, without excluding the adoption of difficult decisions,” he said.

Discretion, it seems, became the better part of bravery. Over the past two weeks, Russian forces have pushed into the eastern bank. Casemate guard posts have become commonplace; trenches appeared on satellite imagery and civilians were ruthlessly driven from houses near the river.

If and when Russian troops retreat to the eastern bank, their supply lines will become easier and they will regain defense in depth. Any attempt by Ukrainian forces to cross the Dnipro would be so costly as to be prohibitive.

Russia would retain control of 60% of the Kherson region, including the coastline along the Sea of ​​Azov. As long as troops from Moscow control and fortify the east bank of the Dnipro, Ukrainian forces will find it difficult to damage or disrupt the channel that carries fresh water to Crimea.

Surovikin’s priority appears to be stabilizing Russia’s defensive lines after a difficult few months. He noted on Wednesday that the forces withdrawn from Kherson “will be used for active operations, including offensive, in other directions of the area of ​​operation.”

There is still a chance that Wednesday’s Moscow meeting was designed to lure Ukrainian forces into a trap, and that the Russians have no intention of abandoning the West Bank altogether. Senior Ukrainian officials were certainly skeptical. But the tactical situation for Russian forces, pushed into an ever-tighter pocket above the river, went from difficult to nearly impossible within weeks.

Kherson’s broader political failure cannot be covered up. Russian-appointed officials have been running the city of Kherson and its surroundings since March. They handed out Russian passports to anyone who had one, talked about the ruble replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia, and organized the wholesale grain theft.

Senior officials arrived from Moscow to discuss the integration of Kherson into the “Russian world”. And then there was the illegal and implausible referendum in September, followed by the pomp of the ceremony in Moscow for the annexation of Kherson and three other regions.

On September 30, Putin said he had a message for Kyiv. “The people of Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia become our citizens. Still.”

“We will defend our land with all the powers and means at our disposal.”

Again, a week is a long time in politics. Celebrations orchestrated by Putin just over a month ago have been confused in one area, just as Ukrainian forces are also beginning to make inroads into Luhansk.

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