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Letter from Kherson: The war of the villages

Ukrainian troops are becoming ever more confident as Russia endures another humiliating defeat

By Jeremy Bowen

We were in Odesa about to leave for home when it became clear that Moscow’s troops were on the way out of Kherson, much faster than anyone expected, so we turned round to travel along the Black Sea coast. Ukraine is a land of rivers, lakes and estuaries, which can complicate the plans of generals. The road by the sea to Kherson passes over a spit of sand over a broad inlet. It was lined with the debris of a fierce battle.

The area was smashed to pieces during the first few months of the war. Once the Russian advance was stopped, it became the front line between the two sides. Badly decomposed bodies were lying on the road, next to the rusty, twisted wreckage of civilian vehicles, as well as tanks and armoured personnel carriers. We made it into Kherson, which was surprisingly undamaged.

Rumours that a withdrawal was coming from Kherson circulated for days before General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, made the announcement during a televised meeting in the defence ministry on 9 November. Surovikin is a beefy man with a shaven head who looks like a Russian commander as imagined in a Bond film, and the expression on his face was grim.

I was spending time with Ukrainian soldiers in front-line positions facing Kherson. Not one of them believed that the Russians would withdraw without a fight, and all of them suspected they were being set up for some sort of trap. Perhaps the plan was to sucker the Ukrainians into driving into Kherson to get smashed by Russian artillery from the opposite bank. Or the Russians might leave soldiers behind to ambush them as they advanced, to force them into house to house fighting.

[See also: What does the Poland missile explosion mean for Nato and Article 5?]

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No one I met seemed very concerned. Ukrainian soldiers have become confident since they confounded predictions, from their friends in Nato, as well as from Moscow, that they would stand no chance against Russia. Ukraine believes that its speedy, flexible army is now one of the best in Europe, and will get better as long as Nato continues to supply it. It was not surprising that President Volodymyr Zelensky urged caution, however. The Russians had time to prepare nasty surprises for advancing Ukrainian troops. One of Zelensky’s advisers warned that the Russians would seed Kherson with mines before they left.

On 11 November I was in the Bristol Hotel in Odesa, a grand piece of architecture from tsarist Russia, when an alert from BBC Monitoring on my phone announced that Russia had completed its withdrawal across the river. It interrupted a briefing I was following online by Serhii Khlan, the triumphant deputy leader of the Kherson Oblast Council. Among the details of another Ukrainian victory, he was telling journalists that in the coming year the crayfish of the Dnipro river will be bigger than ever. Don’t eat them, he warned without smiling, as they will be fat from feasting on dead Russian soldiers. At the briefing in the press centre in Kyiv, Kherson’s other symbol, the watermelon, was on display, balanced on a box, pierced at the top with a small Ukrainian flag mounted on a cocktail stick.

Videos spread across social media of Russian soldiers moving through the fog across a pontoon bridge over the Dnipro. The temporary crossing ran under the main span of Antonivskyi bridge, to get around damage inflicted earlier in the war by Ukraine. Once the Russians were out, the army blew up the bridge, and about a third of it collapsed into the river. By the afternoon the first Ukrainian soldiers to reach Kherson’s main square were being mobbed, cheered, hugged and kissed. Men were pulling down propaganda posters proclaiming that Kherson would be Russian forever. It was only in September that Vladimir Putin illegally annexed four occupied regions of Ukraine, including Kherson.

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Everything happened quickly on 11 November, but the retreat had begun well before the formal announcement was made by Surovikin. The Russian flag came down on the local headquarters building on 3 November. Videos were posted showing empty offices without computers, which suggested that they had enough notice to pack properly. It hinted at a better organised plan than other Russian military ventures in Ukraine since the invasion in February.

The Russians were cock-a-hoop when Kherson was captured in March. They had crossed the considerable obstacle of the Dnipro without much opposition and secured a base to move on towards Odesa. Kherson was their biggest prize, the only regional capital they were able to seize. Had their plan worked they would have controlled much of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. They pushed out into the flat farmland where Kherson’s watermelons and other crops grow, capturing dozens of small villages.

But that was as far as they went. Ukraine’s increasingly proficient and well armed forces stopped them outside Mykolaiv, the next city along from Kherson. As the Russians pushed to break into the city, they blew a large gash in the centre of the district’s administrative headquarters, a great slab of concrete that now looks like a mouth with missing front teeth. A local commander gave me a piece of the Russian projectile, which had been burnished into a medallion engraved with the image of a cruise missile and the words “created to kill, will help to survive”.

Without the possibility of an advance towards Odesa, Kherson and the farmland around it were no longer a springboard to victory, but rather a considerable pocket of land with many restive people. In some ­villages Moscow’s troops terrorised residents who had not been able to leave. I interviewed a great-grandmother in her seventies, who was raped and beaten in her home in Myroliubivka by a militiaman from the separatist eastern regions of Ukraine. She said that the Russian soldiers, frightening enough in their own right, regarded the Ukrainian militias as less than human, and at times their disputes ended with drunken brawls and even shoot-outs.

The village of Myroliubivka, in Kherson Oblast, was liberated by Ukrainian troops in September. Since the summer, Ukrainian forces have been shaving off sections of farmland, ­described by Zelensky as an offensive and perhaps more accurately by a commander here in the south as the “war of the villages”.

The Russians were forced out by Ukraine’s gradual but inexorable advance, and by the realisation that their strategy had failed when the advance was stopped at the gates of Mykolaiv. But in the weeks before their withdrawal, they still had tactical options. I was with a Ukrainian tank unit hunkered down under a motorway bridge when it came under a missile attack. The concrete shuddered and the men under the bridge dived for cover and shrank into their dugouts. Their nerves were shredded.

[See also: Can the Ukraine war now end only with Russia’s defeat?]

Events are moving fast. Ukrainian special forces have crossed the Dnipro estuary, probing into a peninsula on the side controlled by Russia. Ukrainian military competence has repeatedly confounded the Kremlin’s plans, but in the next couple of weeks I’ll be looking for whether Russia has stabilised or even improved its military position by moving back across the river. The Russians seem to have executed a successful fighting retreat, one of the most demanding actions for any army.

I cannot confirm the Russian defence ministry’s claim that they had pulled out 30,000 service personnel as well as approximately 5,000 pieces of military hardware. But I went to the approaches of the Antonivskyi bridge and saw none of the wreckage I would expect if the Ukrainians had managed to hammer them with artillery, as at first they claimed.

Russia might just have extracted a positive from a serious defeat. It must have been slowly taking men and machines out of Kherson for weeks before Surovikin made the announcement, and its forces have moved into more secure and better supplied reinforced positions on the east bank of the Dnipro river, which is a formidable natural defence line.

If Russia was able to retreat in reasonably good order, to prepared and strong positions on the far side of one of Europe’s great – and wide – rivers, then Moscow can claim to have something to build upon. It will have bought some time and imposed some organisation on its ill-disciplined and badly supplied military, and will have a powerful base from which to fire on Ukrainians in Kherson.

But forcing Russian to pull back from a city that President Vladimir Putin had only weeks earlier declared to be part of Russia is a humiliating defeat for him, no matter how many denials are issued by the Kremlin. From Kherson to Kyiv and beyond, the Ukrainians believe they have taken a giant step towards victory.

Jeremy Bowen will be discussing his book “The Making of the Modern Middle East” (Picador) at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November

[See also: Russia has forgotten history’s lessons about waging war in winter]

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This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in