Russia-friendly commentators, apparently even more so the ones on Russian Telegram, were in an uproar after Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and theater commander Sergey Surovikin, said in a broadcast Wednesday evening that Russia would be withdrawing its forces from Kherson city and pulling its defense line back to the south side of the Dneiper, opposite the city. We and others had pointed out that such a move would be politically costly in Russia, even though Surovikin was widely believed to have been hinting at that possibility three weeks ago when he talked about the possibility of needing to make “difficult decisions” in an interview shortly after he took charge.
There are multiple layers to this news which came in a staged conversation between the two officials. The first is that the upset among Russia supporters is disproportionate and reflects what I call map thinking, which I admit I fell for here. But the second, intriguingly, is that Ukraine officials are expressing skepticism that Russia is actually pulling out, since they allege (and some Russia friendly sources also suggest) that Russia has not removed troops from Kherson city. So is this an elaborate Russian headfake?
Or is it simply that Russia is calling Ukraine’s bluff, that for whatever reason taking and holding Kherson would be problematic for Ukraine too, but given the pressure on Ukraine to show gains, it can’t not move in if Russia cedes the city (as in it’s not a trap per se but not worth the resources it would require).
Some maps to help the discussion:
In most wars, success is defined in terms of territorial gains. But when it started the Special Military Operation, Russia has only one territorial objective: to secure and clear Donetsk and Lugansk. The other, demilitarization and denazification, may result in Russia taking territory as a secondary goal. Note that Russia does not have full control of any of the “liberated” oblasts that is says are now part of Russia.
Russia has been willing to cede terrain to secure its position. This normally takes place in fits and starts on the front lines. It’s worked consistently to Russia’s advantage since that approach has enabled them to save men and materiel. By contrast, Ukraine had doggedly fought to hold positions, as did Hitler in World War II. As military historians argue and Ukraine watchers contend now, this approach has cost Ukraine dearly in manpower and equipment losses.
Despite this approach being as dull as watching paint dry from the map perspective, it has also been the least costly way for Russia to chip though the multi-layered bunkering in Donbass and grind down the Ukraine (and increasingly NATO-supplied) forces.
But differences in degree are differences in kind. When Russia pulled out of Kharkiv, Ukraine and the West spun it as a military success despite the (largely empty) territory having no strategic importance. Russians were upset by the lack of explanation, which fed suspicions that things were even worse than they looked, and the fact that some Russia-supporting citizens had not gotten out and were subjected to Ukraine reprisals.
However, after a couple of weeks of Ukraine-gasms, the military was unable to make meaningful advances, supporting the contention that Russia had chosen to fall back to lines it could defend better, and had done so taking almost no losses.
Despite that history, I discounted the idea that Russia would cede Kherson unless pressed very hard by Ukraine forces. Reports that Russia was putting more troops and equipment in Kherson city, along with constructing fortified lines and having pillboxes delivered, bolstered that view. Admittedly, Russia had more and more aggressively been pushing for civilians to evacuate and had even removed important historical monuments. The justification was that civilians were exposed to shelling and would generally be underfoot if the city was being prepared for combat, and Ukraine was trying to blow up the dam of the Kakhovskaya hydroelectric power station, which would cause catastrophic flooding in Kherson.
So perhaps Surovikin has always planned to fall back from Kherson city and has had to obfuscate his intent till now, given the difficulty of moving anything out of Kherson (Russia is limited to boats and pontoon bridges). Or perhaps he was hedging his bets and various factors moved the decision to more clearly favor a pullback, like Ukraine succeeding in damaging one of the locks on the Kakhovskaya dam four days ago, or possibly the status of the mud season (is it lasting longer than usual?).
One more possibility is that Russia has decided to conserve its forces and materiel while the mud season is on and let the destruction of the Ukraine grid and the economic pressures on Europe lead the charge for now. The West’s under-reporting on the continuing Russian pounding of the electrical system reflects their impotence. They’d make more noise if they thought they had an answer. And Alexander Mercouris speculated that the failure to say all that much about increasingly desperate conditions in Ukraine means Europe does not want to admit to the necessity of accepting more refugees if Russia continues to inflict more pain, which seems likely.
Nevertheless, this move is at a minimum very bad optics (unless it is a clever trap that Russia springs successfully) but the optics that matter to Russia are the optics in Russia. Larry Johnson points out that the generally uncontrollable now general and Chechen leader Razman Khadyrov had backed the withdrawal (note he recently savagely criticized a Russian general, on not well-founded grounds, so he regularly throws brickbats when he’s unhappy about military operations). Taken from Johnson’s site:
I fully agree with Mr. Prigozhin’s opinion on Surovikin’s decision. Yevgeny Viktorovich very accurately noted that Surovikin saved a thousand soldiers who were in actual encirclement.
After weighing all the pros and cons, General Surovikin made a difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers.
Kherson is a very difficult area without the possibility of a stable regular supply of ammunition and the formation of a strong, reliable rear. Why was this not done from the first days of the special operation? This is another question. But in this difficult situation, the general acted wisely and far-sightedly – he evacuated the civilian population and ordered a regrouping.
So there is no need to talk about the “surrender” of Kherson. “Surrender” together with the fighters. And Surovikin protects the soldier and takes a more advantageous strategic position – convenient, safe.
Everyone knew from the very first days of the special operation that Kherson was a difficult combat territory. The soldiers of my units also reported that it was very difficult to fight in this area. Yes, it can be kept, it is possible to organize at least some supply of ammunition, but the cost will be numerous human lives. And this forecast does not suit us.
Therefore, I believe that Surovikin acted like a real military general, not afraid of criticism.
He is responsible for the people. He sees better.
Thank you, Sergey Vladimirovich, for taking care of the guys! And we will not stop hitting the enemy and we will not get tired.
I have no idea how much this and other statements will do to calm the nerves of Russian citizens, but this is an improvement on Kharviv. The civilians are being removed to safety, the Russians are clearly signaling that they are pulling back, as opposed to allowing Ukraine to claim they were pushed out, and officials seen as being straight shooters are explaining the move.
From some of the usual suspects, first Andrei Martyanov:
Optics of it is bad and in terms of military lingo it is a tactical-operational setback if one considers the main objective of the war just conquering and holding territory, which it IS NOT…
Finally, for those who still do not understand, here is flooding map from Kakhovka Dam to Kherson, once the dam gives.
Anybody wants to defend it, when the waters come?
I realize this frustrates the dickens out of the global audience who are eager to see a major clash. Some are pulling for Kiev and others are rooting for Moscow. General Surovikin understands that the opinions of the “watchers” is irrelevant. He will fight at a place and time of his choosing, if he can. What is noteworthy about the Russian withdrawal from Kherson is that it was not done under fire or attack. It was calm and orderly an apparently was pre-planned. Perhaps this explains the rumors that circulated a few weeks back that Russia was going to leave Kherson city…
Given the fact the Russia barely has committed any of its main army and advanced weaponry to the battle front while Ukraine scrambles like a beggar in the world market pleading for more money and more vehicles and more tanks, I believe that Russia has the edge. I am not privy to the military plans of the Russian military high command, but the Russian generals do not strike me as men driven by fear and reacting emotionally to tactical shifts on the ground. They are planners and they keep those plans to themselves. I do not think Russia’s long history of surprising adversaries on the battlefield has come to an end. Anyone want to bet that Russia turned the lights off in Kherson before leaving?
And Brian Berletic:
Yes, this is the non-Russia hostile interpretation, but you’ll find plenty of the other world view elsewhere.
But here is the odd part: Ukraine is leery of the Russian present of departure. Podolyak is an advisor to Zelensky:
Actions speak louder than words. We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight. A part of the ru-group is preserved in the city, and additional reserves are charged to the region. 🇺🇦 is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) November 9, 2022
Consistent with Ukraine not being yet sure if Russia has a nefarious plan, the business press so far has not deigned to report on the Russian announcement, which you’d normally expect, like Kharkiv, to be a lead or at least over the fold story. Instead, for instance, nothing in the breaking news stories at Bloomberg or even in the Ukraine news updates section:
Moreover, Dima at Military Summary argues Russia still has so many troops in Kherson that it would be impossible for them to withdraw without Ukraine forbearance. Dima has a tendency to get out over his skis when he deviates from day-to-day reporting on the status of the front line. For instance, in the last famed Kherson offensive, he stuck with the very highest estimate of Ukraine forces, 60,000, when other reporters started with 12,000-15,000 and bumped it up to 20,000 to 30,000 (which may also have been due to the addition of reinforcements).
Nevertheless, Dima likely has some elements generally right even if the particulars might be pumped up. He again claims Ukraine has 60,000 in Kherson. For sake of argument, it is probably at least 30,000. Note that in the day to day fighting, Ukraine has been attacking in Kherson well to the east, while their assaults on Kherson seem to have been mainly in the form of shelling.
Dima claims there are 10,000 to 15,000 Russian troops in Kherson to the West of the Dneiper, which is rather a lot to remove via pontoon bridge and boats, unless Russia is counting on a protracted mud season to protect their rear. Dima also claims that Russia just blew all the bridges on the Inhulets river in Kherson oblast, which runs in a zig-zag north from the Dnieper just to the east of Kherson city. That would divide the Russian bridgehead on the west of the Dneiper….to what purpose? Dima didn’t know the disposition of Russian forces, so it is hard to speculate further.
In other words, the fog of war is pea-soupier than usual! Presumably more will be revealed in the next week or so, particularly regarding Ukraine’s response.
Update 8:45 AM EST. I hate it when I am slow to connect dots due to the pressure to put a good argument together. If Ukraine were to move troops into Kherson, it would be even more exposed to flood risk than Russia due to Russia’s control of the dam. Russia could send a surge down the river.