The Russian withdrawal from the city of Kherson sets the stage for more difficult battles
“We see all these signs — blown up bridges, the abandonment of villages, the direction of the Dnieper River,” Kostenko said. “We see them retreating.”
These moves muddled a battlefield picture that was already chaotic after nine months of fighting. Some officials in Kiev questioned whether the Russian announcement was a trap meant to attract Ukrainian forces. It also remained unclear Wednesday whether some Russian forces could be stranded on the west side of the river, depending on how quickly Ukrainian troops advance.
US officials said Moscow made the decision to avoid a repeat of their chaotic, bloody failure in the Kharkiv region, where Ukrainian forces broke through Russian front lines in September, capturing hundreds of square miles and vast amounts of hastily abandoned Russian military equipment. This time, the Russian withdrawal appears to be strategic – a proactive withdrawal to safer positions and preparation for future combat.
“Russia realized that it would be better to withdraw as soon as possible than to be overrun by the Ukrainians and suffer huge losses,” said Jim Stavridis, a retired US Navy admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. “The Ukrainians will not stop until they completely capture the city – nor should they. It has enormous geographical, military and psychological value.”
The recapture of Kherson, along with Ukraine raising its blue-and-yellow flag over the city Russian forces seized in March, would mark the latest major battlefield setback for the Kremlin in Ukraine. Jastreb’s Russian military bloggers lamented the withdrawal, calling it a betrayal.
Stavridis predicted that Ukraine could seize “objectionable” Russian military equipment and possibly uncover additional evidence of Russian war crimes, “including what has become their modus operandi of rape, torture, detention and mass murder.”
In the Mykolaiv region, northwest of Kherson, Ukrainian medic Ivan Malenki said Wednesday that his unit was already clearing landmines planted there by Russian forces, in a potential preview of what could await Ukrainian troops in Kherson.
“Now we ourselves don’t understand what the front line is, the second line or whatever,” Malenki said. “We just know they’re gone. Where they went and what they left behind is not clear.”
US Army General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday night that 20,000 to 30,000 Russian forces remained on the west bank of the river and would take time to withdraw. But he, too, he said, saw “initial indications” that a retreat was underway.
“It won’t take them a day or two to do this,” Milley said, speaking at an event at the Economic Club of New York. “It will take them days, maybe even weeks, to pull those forces south of that river.”
Ukrainian forces have been slowly advancing toward Kherson for weeks, targeting ammunition centers, command posts and supply facilities in the region and putting pressure on Russian forces, said Yuri Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense ministry.
“It is literally no longer possible for them to stay in Kherson because they are not able to provide ammunition to their army, to provide provisions,” Sak said in an interview. “It is no longer possible for them to continue fighting.”
Despite surging troops posting videos on social media and selfies of retaken villages, Ukrainian military commanders have been reluctant to convey their next moves.
“Winter will be a factor,” Sak said. “It could be slower, it could be faster depending on the weather conditions. But we won’t stop. We will continue our counteroffensive meter by meter, village by village.”
Departing Russian forces are laying mines and blowing up bridges as they withdraw from the city of Kherson, and there are concerns that some troops may be hiding in the city, waiting to spring a trap, Ukrainian officials said. The advancing Ukrainian soldiers will also be within range of Russian artillery on the opposite bank of the river.
But a complete withdrawal from the city of Kherson is now seen as inevitable. Ukrainian forces have targeted Russian supply lines and stifled Moscow’s ability to support frontline troops.
“The Russians can definitely still set up some traps in Kherson, but they never had enough troops or logistics to hold those positions on the right bank,” said another Ukrainian government adviser who was not authorized to speak to reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ahead of Shoigu’s announcement, a NATO official said Russian troops were in a “terrible situation” in Kherson, with only one supply line to the east.
The official, who shared an analysis of the developing situation on condition of anonymity, said that while Russian officials had called for the evacuation of civilians from the city and pulled more experienced troops east across the river, troops that had recently been mobilized had been sent into the city, leaving a total the number of Russian forces there unchanged. NATO officials do not understand why the Russian military made that decision, the official said.
But just as the Dnieper River has been an obstacle for the Russians to supply troops, Ukraine is not expected to be able to easily push east and south to Crimea from there. Instead, outside observers and Ukrainian officials said, Kiev is likely to focus on stopping the remaining Russian supply lines from the Crimea peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and then shift forces to fight other occupied territory.
“We have no geographical opportunity to liberate Crimea any time soon,” another Ukrainian adviser said. “We must first liberate the entire south of Ukraine and we will not do it from the right bank of the river. Now we have a theater on the left bank, and all activities will be on the left bank.”
Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general who followed the war closely, said Ukrainian forces crossing the Dnieper would be a major operation and the Russian military would inflict significant casualties if they did.
“I don’t see it in the short term,” said Ryan, who visited Ukrainian officials in Kiev last month. “The Ukrainians are likely to look at other lines of advance to clear the south.”
Ryan said Ukraine’s seizure of the city of Kherson was “not a game-changer” in its goal to reclaim Crimea, but “one step closer.” The capture of other parts of the Kherson region and neighboring Zaporozhye, to the east, must be the first priority, he said.
“This will be a methodical and deliberate series of battles and campaigns in the south that should culminate in the Crimea campaign,” Ryan said.
Ben Hodges, the former commander of US forces in Europe, also predicted that Ukrainian commanders could soon press Zaporozhye, home to a nuclear power plant seized by Russian troops. Sabotaging access to electricity ahead of a harsh winter was a key strategy for Moscow, Hodges said, and taking control could be a priority.
Hodges said there are reports of Russian commanders substituting battle-hardened troops for freshly mobilized troops in the south as Moscow reinforces defense lines across the river. While it makes tactical sense to force Ukraine to cross the river to advance, poorly trained and equipped recruits could struggle to do so, he said.
Hodges predicted that Ukraine could retake Crimea by the end of next summer. But that mission would be easier with the long-range artillery that the United States has so far denied Ukraine, he said.
The United States has provided rocket artillery with a range of about 50 miles, which is why Crimea is still out of Kherson’s reach, Hodges said. For months, Kiev has sought American missiles with a range of nearly 200 miles, known as the Army Tactical Missile System, that could reach Russian military targets on the peninsula, but the Biden administration has refused to send them, seeing it as an escalation that could provoke Moscow.
The winter months could bring additional difficulties on the battlefield.
As the temperature drops and war becomes more of a test of endurance and will, units with manpower and morale problems may see those issues worsen.
“I would hate to be a Russian soldier sitting in a trench in southern Ukraine,” Hodges said. “This is another example of them trading bodies for time.”
Soldiers with poor discipline can find it difficult to sustain guard duties, leaving security gaps for Ukrainian forces to exploit, said Rob Lee, an expert on the Russian military and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute.
Another challenge for both sides will be limiting how much the cold exposes their positions. Vehicles and people generate thermal energy that can be detected by infrared options that soldiers hand-carry and mount on some drones and vehicles.
Winter will also reduce the amount of overhead concealment, and leafless trees provide little cover. Even a generator hidden in a trench will emit heat to help identify targets for artillery strikes, Lee said.
Meanwhile, Russian mercenary forces have built complex lines of trenches in southern Ukraine, studded with concrete anti-tank pyramid barriers called “dragon’s teeth”. The move could be a public relations ploy, Lee said, or it could be a hard lesson learned from Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces pushed unfortified Russian lines.
Either way, the front lines are likely to re-consolidate at the river’s edge as Russian and Ukrainian forces hurl artillery and mortars at each other in a freezing winter of human suffering.
Sly reported from Kyiv, and Miller reported from Mykolaiv Oblast.
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