Colorful billboards erected by Russian occupying forces in the Ukrainian city of Kherson boasted that it would be a Russian city “forever”. In reality, it lasted a little over eight months.
Under heavy bombardment from a Ukrainian counter-offensive that began on August 29, Russian troops at risk of being surrounded were ordered to withdraw from the city on Wednesday.
Their retreat marks a major victory for Kyiv in the battle for southeastern Ukraine, which robs Moscow of its greatest military achievement in the war and changes the reckoning for both sides as the conflict heads into winter.
Ukrainian and Western officials have speculated for weeks that a Russian the city’s withdrawal, strategic for its proximity to Crimea, was imminent and was quick to urge caution over the implications of Moscow’s withdrawal while downplaying any hopes that it might trigger a rapid advance.
But analysts said control of the city would expand Kyiv’s options to inflict greater damage on Russia’s diminished invasion targets and its ability to hold territory it still controls.
“Kherson is important to both sides,” a Western intelligence official said.
Even if Kherson is quickly evacuated, it is highly unlikely to trigger a rout of the Russian lines. By withdrawing from the city, which sits on the northwest (or right) bank of the Dnipro River near its Black Sea delta, Russia aims to strengthen its defenses across the river, where it is building defensive lines for weeks. , reinforced by natural defenses such as canals and wet, swampy soils.
Thus, Western officials expect Ukraine to be able to retake the northwest bank of the Dnipro by the end of November, while Russia can hold the other side.
Speaking at an event in New York, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley estimated that Russia had up to 30,000 troops north of the Dnipro in that area. “It’s going to take them days and maybe even weeks to pull those forces south of that river,” he said.
Besides its symbolic value as the only provincial capital captured by Russia during its more than eight-month invasion, Kherson has major value as a strategic location from which Ukraine can recalibrate its counteroffensive.
The wider Kherson region connects mainland Ukraine with the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, and the city lies about 100 km from the isthmus which provides Russia with a narrow land corridor to resupply its troops from its great bases there.
This would put three important routes that lie on the land bridge and a number of Russian logistics sites and ammunition depots within range of the Ukrainian-provided high-precision rocket system, threatening a critical supply route that fueled Russia’s war effort from the peninsula.
The province of Kherson on the right bank of the Dnipro River is “strategically important from a military point of view because it gives us control of the firepower of the Crimean roads used as supply lines by the Russians”, said said Serhiy Kuzan, adviser to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. . “It will be a very big blow to the Russian forces.”
This proximity to Crimea could also see Russia move more forces south to protect the approach to the annexed peninsula, territory from which President Vladimir Putin may never agree to withdraw: his most significant military conquest in the past. of his reign of more than two decades, Crimea is also home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Kherson, captured in March, “is the only target Russia has achieved of all its plans,” said Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary. “And now they have given it up. Which must beg the question in the Kremlin: what was all this for, all these lost Russian lives?
Military analysts said how Russia pulls out will be key to Moscow’s longer-term prospects in southeastern Ukraine. A Ukrainian counteroffensive in northeastern Ukraine in September triggered a chaotic retreat, decimating Russian military lines and capabilities.
“If Russia can withdraw its units without incurring heavy casualties, it will likely be in a better position to maintain its existing front lines,” said Rob Lee, senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “That is why [how] the withdrawal is made is critical.
Thursday’s development comes as the United States estimated that both sides had suffered heavy losses. Milley said more than 100,000 Russian soldiers had been killed and wounded in Ukraine, with Kyiv likely suffering similar losses.
Ukraine has informed its allies that it plans to advance slowly and carefully as its troops move to retake Kherson, according to a Western diplomat, wary of Russian troops who may remain in the city and the greater threat of the other side of the river. Ukrainian officials on Wednesday urged caution over the reality of the Russian withdrawal, fearing a trap.
While announcing the planned retreat, Sergei Surovikin, appointed commander of the Russian invasion force last month, claimed that Russia had in fact succeeded in repelling Ukrainian attacks and inflicting significant casualties on troops in Kyiv.
Surovikin said the withdrawal would “free up forces and equipment that will be used to carry out actions, including of an offensive nature, in other areas where the operation is being carried out.”
Russian commanders “clearly made the decision to withdraw behind the natural border [of the river]said Wallace. “A perfectly logical measure.”
Kuzan said that while Russia has “already bid farewell to the city of Kherson as an administrative center” after evacuating its non-military personnel and officials in recent weeks, it has simultaneously bolstered troop levels around the city and along the front lines on the western side of the Dnipro.
“Their best ground forces remained. But they have moved their artillery to the eastern side of the Dnipro river, from where they can reach the front lines,” Kuzan said.
Even if the conflict in southeastern Ukraine descends into a stalemate over the winter, as some Western officials have suggested, the recapture of Kherson will give Kyiv leverage as it pressures on Western governments to step up arms and ammunition deliveries, as well as financial support.
“It is encouraging to see how the brave Ukrainian forces are able to liberate more Ukrainian territory, the victories, the gains that the Ukrainian armed forces achieve belong to the brave and courageous Ukrainian soldiers,” NATO Secretary General said on Wednesday. , Jens Stoltenberg. “But of course the support they receive from the UK, NATO allies and partners is also essential… We will continue to support Ukraine.
Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone in London and Max Seddon in Riga