Russian retreat from Kherson: what’s next?
The Russian army on Thursday announced the start of a troop pullout from Kherson, a strategic port city in southern Ukraine occupied by Moscow since February.
What does this mean for Russia’s military campaign?
– Why now? –
When he made the announcement on Wednesday, Russia’s commander in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, presented the retreat as a way to save thousands of Russian soldiers.
Since last August, the Ukrainian army has been pressing a major counteroffensive in southern Ukraine, taking back swathes of territory.
With high-precision, long-range artillery including Himars launchers delivered by the West, Kyiv has for weeks pummelled Russian ammunition depots and supply lines.
Targeted assassinations of pro-Russian officials have also increased in the region.
“We are continuing our offensive in accordance with our plan,” Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny said on messaging app Telegram.
The Ukrainian army however noted that it could neither confirm nor deny the Russian withdrawal so far.
Last month, Moscow ordered the departure of civilians and the occupation administration from Kherson to the left bank of the Dnipro river where Moscow could consolidate its positions.
Military experts believe the announcement of the Russian pullout is not a ruse.
“The battle of Kherson is not inherently over,” said The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank.
“But Russian forces have entered a new phase — prioritising withdrawing their forces across the river in good order and delaying Ukrainian forces, rather than seeking to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive entirely.”
– What does it mean? –
The retreat is an enormous setback for Russian leader Vladimir Putin who proclaimed to have annexed Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions following what Russia calls “referendums” rejected by the international community.
Joining hands with Moscow-installed leaders of the annexed territories, Putin announced at the Kremlin in September that the lands had joined Russia “forever”.
Without Kherson, it will be difficult for Moscow to press ahead with its offensive towards the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv and the Black Sea port of Odessa.
In addition, Russia could lose control of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River, which supplies water to Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
From Kherson, Ukrainian troops could also hit Crimea with long-range artillery.
The pullback was announced after Russian troops were forced to retreat from swathes of the northeastern region of Kharkiv in September, and could further affect the morale of the army that is already relying on hundreds of thousands of reservists without combat experience.
– Reactions in Russia –
On Thursday, Russian state-controlled television channels provided minimal coverage of the retreat in an apparent effort not to dwell on the embarrassing development.
By comparison with previous setbacks, pro-Kremlin hardliners approved the retreat.
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the secretive private military group Wagner, have both welcomed the move.
“Surovikin acted like a true combat general who is not afraid of criticism,” said Kadyrov, who has previously criticised the Russian armed forces.
“He is in charge of people. He knows best,” he wrote on Telegram.
Surovikin, known for his ruthless reputation, was named commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine in October with the aim of turning the tide after a series of battlefield defeats.
– What’s next? –
The withdrawal from Kherson would allow Russian forces to entrench themselves behind the natural barrier of the Dnipro river but would make it more difficult to pursue an offensive in the region.
Moscow, which has suffered heavy losses, wants to win some breathing space to be able to equip and train the soldiers mobilised since September.
Military experts do not rule out a new offensive in the new year.
US officials have also raised the possibility of resuming peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, which have been stalled since late March.