What Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson means for the war in Ukraine

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CNN
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Scenes of jubilation broke out in Ukraine’s southern Kherson city on Friday as Ukrainian forces advanced through much of the city and its surrounding area, apparently encountering little or no resistance as they regained the only regional capital captured by Russia this year.

Russian forces have retreated to the east bank of the Dnipro River, which cleaves through the wider region, also called Kherson, that was annexed by Russia in September in violation of international laws.

The withdrawal is another humiliating setback for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and the most significant military moment in the war since Ukrainian forces swept through the northern Kharkiv region in September.

A local walks under a destroyed building in Vysokopillya, Kherson province, Ukraine. Nov. 11, 2022

The Russian withdrawal was ordered on Wednesday during a choreographed meeting in Moscow between Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, which was shown on Russian state media.

In leaving the western half of Kherson, the Russians have pulled back from thousands of square kilometers, including some of Ukraine’s best farmland, which it has occupied since the early days of the invasion.

Surovikin said that the withdrawal would protect the lives of civilians and troops – who have faced a punishing Ukrainian counteroffensive that targeted Russian ammunition depots and command posts, hampering their supply lines.

Russian forces have now ceded about 40% of the Kherson region, which straddles the Dnipro, within a few days.

Now that Ukrainian forces have recaptured Kherson as far as the Dnipro river, the two sides face each other across the river over a distance of some 250 kilometers (155 miles) – from the area around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to the edge of the Black Sea.

The withdrawal – while presented as a prudent military move to save resources and allow them to be deployed to other fronts – nevertheless deals a blow to Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine.

Just weeks ago Kherson region was annexed, illegally incorporated into the Russian Federation. Now about 10,000 square kilometers of land are back in Ukrainian hands, and Ukraine’s accurate Western-supplied artillery is within range of Crimea.

Russia still however retains control of about 60% of the Kherson region, south and east of the Dnipro, including the coastline along the Sea of Azov. So long as Moscow’s troops control and fortify the Dnipro’s east bank, Ukrainian forces will struggle to damage or disrupt the canal that carries fresh water to Crimea.

Moving to the east bank will make it easier for Russia to replenish its troops and regain defense in depth. Any attempt by Ukrainian forces to cross the Dnipro would be costly to the point of prohibitive, as Russian forces are well dug in along a stretch of the river. Pillbox guardhouses have become a common sight; trenches appeared on satellite imagery and civilians were unceremoniously removed from homes close to the river.

In Moscow, some hawkish commentators have lamented the withdrawal as a humiliation and an embarrassment. But others who were previously critical of the Defense Ministry have accepted the move. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said Surovikin had saved a thousand soldiers and “made a difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers.”

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

President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed Friday as “a historic day” for Ukraine. “We are returning the south of our country, we are returning Kherson,” Zelensky said.

The Ukrainian military’s fresh success, on the heels of a lightning fast advance across much of Kharkiv in September, will help reinforce international support for Ukraine’s war effort, even as US officials are urging Zelensky to soften his rhetoric on negotiations, if not his core demands.

Success in Kherson may also allow exhausted Ukrainian units some respite, as well as allow redirected focus on Donbas, where fierce fighting continues in both Luhansk and Donetsk.

But Russia has plenty of weaponry and tens of thousands of newly mobilized troops to send into battle, and its campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure has left power and water supplies hanging by a thread in many regions. Ukraine is slowly receiving advanced air defenses from Western donors but has a huge area to defend.

Ukranian authorities also have a massive task of reconstruction ahead in Kherson, where Russian forces destroyed critical infrastructure and left a huge number of mines behind.

On Friday, Maxar Technologies satellite images and other photos showed at least seven bridges, four of them crossing the Dnipro, have been destroyed in the last 24 hours.

New damage has also appeared on a critical dam that spans the Dnipro in the Kherson region city of Nova Kakhovka, on the east bank of the river. For weeks, both sides have accused the other of planning to breach the dam, which if destroyed would lead to extensive flooding on the east bank and deprive the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia of water to cool its reactors.

Ukraine laid the groundwork for its victory in Kherson back in the summer, with relentless long-distance attacks on Russian supply depots, railway hubs and bridges. It is using the same tactic now in Luhansk.

Events in Kherson and Kharkiv have shown that the Ukrainians possess tactical agility that seems alien to the Russian way of war, as well as far superior battlefield intelligence.

Russia’s merciless bombardments, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk, have undoubtedly killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers since the invasion began. But it’s hard to envision such a blunt instrument achieving Putin’s goal of reaching the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk – especially as Ukraine has now changed the front lines in the south to such advantage.