Briefing

Why Russia's retreat from Kherson is a big deal for Ukraine

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. The people in these provinces were Russian citizens now, Putin proclaimed. Just a few months later, in November, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered Putin's troops to retreat from Kherson City, the first and only regional capital Russia has captured in the war, and all provincial lands west of the Dnipro River. Russia said the retreat was complete on November 11, marking a huge embarrassment for Putin and a massive victory for Ukraine. Here's a look a why Russia's pullback is such a big deal.

Why is Russia leaving Kherson?

Pulling back across the Dnipro River, which cuts Ukraine in half, makes military sense for Moscow. Kherson "was the only land that Moscow controlled west" of the river, The New York Times explains, and Russia's position had become untenable after months of Ukraine's relentless shelling, especially at bridges and other crossing points. The risk of flooding in the area also put Russia in a tough position.  

"Under these conditions, the city of Kherson and nearby settlements cannot be supplied in a fully fledged manner," said Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. "I understand that this is a very difficult decision, but at the same time we will preserve the most important thing — the lives of our servicemen and the overall combat capability of the grouping of troops." According to U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it's likely that more than Russian 100,000 soldiers have been killed or injured in fighting since February. In leaving Kherson, Moscow chose to avoid losing more troops in what could have been "a bloody, street-by-street battle," the Times adds.

Could the withdrawal be a trap?

Kyiv was initially skeptical of Russia's announcement. Ukraine's military had been saying for days that Russia's telegraphed moves to evacuate western Kherson could well be a ruse to draw Ukraine into an ambush. Ukrainian troops in Kherson were also suspicious, as BBC News correspondent Jeremy Bowen reported from the Kherson front line. 

But Russia's withdrawal "is unlikely to be a trap," according to the Institute for the Study of War think tank. Russian forces and occupation officials have "steadily withdrawn from the west bank across the Dnipro River, and Russian officials have been anticipating and preparing for withdrawal in a way that is incompatible with a campaign to deceive and trap Ukrainian troops." 

That doesn't mean Russia will go peacefully. Britain's Defense Ministry assessed that "in retreating, Russian forces have destroyed multiple bridges and likely laid mines to slow and delay advancing Ukrainian forces." Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Russia wants to turn Kherson into a "city of death." 

How big a blow is this to the Kremlin's war effort?

It's a "humiliating defeat for Putin," Max Boot writes at The Washington Post. Kherson was strategically useful, offering Russia a port-city base from which to eventually launch invasions of other nearby cities. "That would have allowed them to choke off Ukraine from the Black Sea, its major trade artery," Boot writes. 

The retreat also helps pave a path for Ukraine to retake parts of the south, and possibly even recapture Crimea, according to retired Austrian Maj. Gen. Mick Ryan. And the Ukraine war isn't just about military combat — it's also a theater of information warfare. "This is important for Putin," Ryan adds. "Having told the Russian people, in the annexation declaration, that Kherson is part of Russia, Putin will need a story to justify the withdrawal and distract the domestic audience from it." It's likely he'll rain more missiles down on Ukrainian cities and civilian targets to distract from this failure. 

What's the reaction in Russia?

Some pro-Kremlin voices are harshly criticizing the decision, calling it a "murder of Russian hopes," and "Russia's biggest geopolitical defeat since the moment of the collapse of the USSR." On the other hand, many prominent military bloggers see the decision as a necessary one, "indicating that Russian leadership has learned from the information effects of the disastrous Russian withdrawal from Kharkiv Oblast in mid-September," ISW reports

Notably, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner militia magnate Yevgeny Prigozhin, both of whom have been highly critical of Russia's defense ministry, applauded Surovikin's decision as his "greatest achievement" and a "difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of high-profile statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers."

Putin has not comment on the decision, "suggesting that the Kremlin is framing the withdrawal as a purely military decision," ISW adds.

How is the West responding?

President Biden, at a press conference Wednesday, said the Kherson retreat is "evidence of the fact that they have some real problems, the Russian military." The U.S. had been expecting the pullback, he added, but it's interesting that the Kremlin waited until after the midterm elections to announced the retreat. (Russian TV host and Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov speculated Wednesday evening that the Kherson withdrawal "was announced after Nov. 8, on Nov. 9, so it wouldn't influence the U.S. elections," The Daily Beast's Julia Davis notes.)

Other Western analysts said Putin's decision to retreat from Kherson is a welcome reminder of his "willingness to make tactical concessions," the Times reports. Indeed, "the best news about the retreat is that it provides more evidence that Putin is rational — he isn't another Hitler who wants to die in his bunker and doesn't care how many people he takes with him," Boot writes at the Post. For all his many faults, "the Russian strongman is a rational actor who is willing to retreat under pressure if it is to his advantage to do so," and "that should lessen concern that Putin will launch World War III if he doesn't get his way in Ukraine."

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