EXPLANATION: What would a withdrawal from Kherson mean for Russia?
Ukrainian forces pressing the offensive in the south they focused on Kherson, the capital of the province which has been under Russian control since the first days of the invasion.
The possible fall of the city would inflict another humiliation on Moscow after a series of battlefield defeats and other setbacks, further impeding Russian President Vladimir Putin and setting the stage for a potential escalation of the nearly 8-month-old war.
A look at the military and political importance of Kherson:
WHY IS THE CITY SUCH A PRIZE?
Kherson, which had a pre-war population of 280,000, is the only regional capital to be captured by Russian forces. The city and surrounding areas fell to Moscow in the first days of the conflict, as Russian troops quickly pushed back their offensive north of Crimea, a region illegally annexed by the Kremlin in 2014.
His loss was a major blow to Ukraine due to its location on the Dnieper River, near the mouth of the Black Sea, and its role as a major industrial center. Ukrainian resistance fighters have since challenged Russian troops for control of the city, acts of sabotage and assassinations of Moscow-appointed officials.
Kherson is also located where Ukraine can cut off fresh water from the Dnieper to the Crimea. Kiev blocked those vital supplies after annexing the Crimean peninsula, and Putin cited the need to restore them as one of the reasons for his decision to invade.
Over the summer, Ukrainian troops launched a relentless offensive to retake parts of the province, also called Kherson and one of four regions illegally annexed by Russia after fake referendums last month. Ukraine used US-supplied HIMARS missile launchers to repeatedly hit a key Dnieper bridge in Kherson and a large dam upstream that is also used as a crossing point. The strikes have forced Russia to rely on pontoons and ferries, which are also being targeted by Ukraine.
This disrupts supply links with Kherson and the group of Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnieper and makes them vulnerable to encirclement. Shortages worsened after a truck bomb blew up part of the strategic Kerch bridge connecting the Russian mainland to Crimea on October 8, which served as a major supply hub for Russian forces in the south.
WHAT IS THE ANSWER TO RUSSIA?
Putin blamed the attack on the Kerch bridge on the Ukrainian military intelligence service and responded with an order bombing of energy infrastructure throughout Ukraine.
He too declared a state of emergency in Kherson and three other annexed regions in an attempt to tighten Moscow’s grip.
But as Ukrainian forces stubbornly pressed their offensive to the southwest along the Dnieper, Russian troops found it increasingly difficult to halt their advance.
General Sergei Surovikin, the newly appointed Russian commander in Ukraine, appeared to set the stage for a possible withdrawal from Kherson, acknowledging that the situation in the region was “quite difficult” for Moscow and noting that the fighting situation there was still evolving.
Russian authorities, who initially rejected talk of evacuating the city, sharply reversed course this week, warning that Kherson could come under massive Ukrainian shelling and encouraging residents to leave – but only to areas under Russian control. Officials said 15,000 of an expected 60,000 had been relocated by Thursday. Officials from the Moscow-appointed regional administration also stepped down, along with other civil servants.
Moscow has warned that Ukraine could try to attack the Kahovka hydroelectric dam about 50 kilometers (30 miles) upstream and flood wide areas, including the city of Kherson. Ukraine denies this and in turn accuses Russia of planning to blow it up to cause catastrophic flooding before its withdrawal.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the dam had already been mined by Russia and called on world leaders to make it clear to the Kremlin that blowing it up “would mean exactly the same as using weapons of mass destruction.”
WHAT WOULD THE LOSS OF KHERSON MEAN FOR RUSSIA?
A withdrawal from Kherson and other areas on the west bank of the Dnieper would dash Russia’s hopes of pressing an offensive westward to Mykolaiv and Odesa to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. Such a move would deal a devastating blow to its economy. It would also allow Moscow to build a land corridor to separatist Transnistria in Moldova, home to a large Russian military base.
“The loss of Kherson will turn all those southern dreams of the Kremlin into dust,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov. “Kherson is the key to the entire southern region, which would allow Ukraine to target key supply routes for Russian forces.” The Russians will try by all means to maintain control over him.”
For Ukraine, the capture of Kherson would set the stage for the return of part of the Zaporizhzhia region to Russian control and other areas to the south, and the eventual push into Crimea.
“Ukraine just needs to wait until Kherson falls into its hands like a ripe apple, because the situation with the supplies of the Russian group of forces is getting worse every day,” Zhdanov said.
Ukraine hopes to quickly double the number of HIMARS missile launchers that could hit targets 80 kilometers (50 miles) away with deadly accuracy, he said.
Regaining control of Kherson would also mean that Kiev could once again cut off water to Crimea.
“After the de-occupation of Kherson, the Russians will again have problems with fresh water in Crimea,” Zhdanov added.
He said Putin could widen his lead if he faces the loss of Kherson.
“The Russians would be ready to wipe Kherson off the face of the Earth rather than give it to Ukraine,” Zhdanov said.
Destroying the dam and causing massive flooding in a largely flat area would be one way for Moscow to do this.
“The Russians want to show that the Ukrainian counter-offensive will be met with a harsh response from the Kremlin, which has declared the region part of Russia, and it’s scary to even think what that response might be,” added Zhdanov.
Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kiev-based independent think tank Penta Center, noted that capturing all of Kherson Oblast and other southern regions would be a prize for Russia and that their loss would have painful consequences for Putin at home and abroad.
“If the Russians leave Kherson, the Kremlin will face another wave of fierce criticism of the military command and the government in general from ultra-patriotic circles,” Fesenko said, adding that the fall of the city would further demoralize the armed forces and possibly fuel opposition to mobilization efforts.
He said both China and India. who closely follow the Russian action in Ukraine, will see the fall of Kherson as a sign of the Kremlin’s weakness.
“Putin will face reputational losses not only within the country, but also in the eyes of China, and this could be particularly dangerous for the Kremlin,” Fesenko said.
Juras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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