President Putin’s decision to withdraw from Kherson could be a turning point in the war, not so much because of the fate of this shattered city itself, but for what could follow.
Moscow is hoping to slow Ukraine’s advance; Kyiv is scenting a wider victory; and the West fears that too speedy and successful an advance might bump Putin into escalation.
The Ukrainians were wise enough not to try to push the Russians out in street-by-street fighting, and instead isolated them, hitting the crucial bridges across the Dnipro river with long-range artillery and hammering their supply lines. The goal was to make their position so untenable they would simply abandon their prize.
Russia’s generals have known this for some time, and had been lobbying for weeks for a withdrawal to positions along the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro. It seems that Putin was reluctant, because while Kherson was militarily indefensible it was politically significant as the only regional capital he had managed to capture, and he had incautiously declared at the end of September that its residents were “our citizens for ever”.
Although the Ukrainians feared a trap to the end, the Russians began openly pulling out today, although they probably quietly began several days before. At the time of writing, accounts are mixed, with competing claims of a successfully completed operation and a massacre at the hands of Ukrainian artillery. A withdrawal under fire is a complex and difficult operation, after all, and much will depend on how disciplined and successful a retreat they have been able to manage.
Moscow’s hope has been that these forces, which include a disproportionate number of paratroopers and other relatively elite troops, could be extricated largely intact, to reinforce new defensive lines. In recent weeks new fortifications have been built along the Dnipro. Indeed, this is being done all along the front line and even in Crimea.
The intent is to try to halt Ukraine’s advances until autumnal rains make substantive offensive operations difficult. While some 80,000 mobilised reservists have been thrown into the front line as little more than cannon fodder, taking terrible losses, twice as many are undergoing very basic training in Russia and Belarus. The idea is that by spring they will have been formed into brand new — if poor quality — units, whose arrival on the front lines would dramatically strengthen them.
Putin is, after all, probably not expecting to win this war on the battlefield. Rather, by denying Ukraine a quick win and signalling that Russia is able to leverage its resources to keep the war running indefinitely, he hopes to shake the West’s willingness to continue to arm and bankroll the conflict.
The danger for Russia was that the withdrawal could become a rout. Under Ukraine’s accurate and powerful artillery fire, discipline could collapse. Panic can be contagious, and with military police units already overstretched — one US intelligence analyst said the war had left them “shell-shocked and uncertain” — this could have led to a wider pattern of retreats.
The chances of the Ukrainians then being able to mount a substantial attack across the Dnipro were slender, but one scenario that the Russians had feared was that, as in the successful Kharkiv offensive, they might send fast, light raiding forces deep into Russian-held territory, bypassing strongpoints but raiding supply lines and spreading panic.
One British military analyst described Chaplynka, 100km southeast of Kherson, as a key benchmark. The town has been fortified, with artillery pits, trench lines and an airfield that is being used as a base for helicopter gunships. In his view “Chaplynka is the main roadblock on the way to Crimea . . . [It] should be expected to hold, but if for any reasons the Russians bug out, it’s next stop Armyansk,” the gateway to the peninsula.
That the withdrawal seems to have gone relatively successfully, allowing the Ukrainians to liberate Kherson but not triggering a wider collapse of the Russian lines, is perversely something of a relief for many western governments.
One of their nightmares was precisely that the Ukrainians might spy an opportunity to make some kind of direct thrust towards Crimea. The peninsula matters to Putin — and, indeed, most Russians — the way the other annexed territories do not. His seizure of Crimea in 2014 was hailed at home as a triumph, and Putin may consider its potential loss an existential threat to his power.
He has demonstrated that he can be rational and accept defeats, as when he abandoned his early drive on Kyiv at the end of March and now over Kherson. However, the fear is that if faced with a sudden and unexpected threat to Crimea he could panic and escalate the war in dangerous ways, potentially resorting to non-strategic nuclear weapons.
This would pose some thorny political dilemmas for the West. Could they really petition the Ukrainians not to press home their advantage and take back as much occupied territory as they can? Would Kyiv listen?
For all Moscow’s repeated claims that the Ukrainians are merely Nato proxies, with President Zelensky an actor reading lines supplied by the CIA, if anything of late the West has been signalling its discomfort at Ukraine’s refusal to share its intentions and listen to its backers’ concerns.
This week, for example, the US government, feeling it had exhausted other avenues, resorted to “diplomacy by media”, with a strategic leak to the ever-obliging Washington Post that it was concerned about the risk of growing “Ukraine fatigue” in the West so long as Kyiv appeared to rule out any negotiations with Russia.
To be sure, at present there is nothing to negotiate seriously. Although Moscow keeps claiming to be willing to talk, so long as it refuses to countenance the return of occupied territories, there is not enough common ground to make talks meaningful, especially as a ceasefire maintaining the present positions would be very much to the Russians’ advantage, granting them a breathing space in which to regroup and rearm. Ukraine has ruled it out.
Nonetheless, with the G20 summit looming, the West is concerned that Moscow is having some success in selling its invasion as an “anti-imperialist war” in the global south. Visiting Tehran last week, Putin’s closest and most hawkish ally, Nikolai Patrushev, framed it as a “struggle for the establishment of a multipolar world order” against “US hegemony”.
Last month Zelensky issued a decree forbidding talks with Russia so long as Putin was president. Moscow has made much of this, presenting Kyiv as the obstacle to peace. Washington’s overtures were successful in getting Zelensky to soften his position, which will help the struggle to shore up support in neutral countries.
However, the West is painfully aware that, in the words of one European ambassador in Moscow, “Kyiv is determined to call the shots” on what is, after all, a war for its own national sovereignty, in which its citizens are doing the dying, and that it is “often frankly annoyed at any suggestion that it should moderate its actions based on what Putin might feel”.
The liberation of Kherson is undoubtedly a Ukrainian triumph. However, behind the scenes there are growing disagreements among the western allies and between Kyiv and its supporters over when peace negotiations should take place and how the war might end. As Ukraine’s forces edge closer to Crimea these tensions will become more significant, more urgent and potentially much more dangerous.