BERLIN – The Russian army occupied the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson days after its invasion of the country on 24 February. By 2 March, Kherson was under Russian control. It was meant to be the first population centre Russia would occupy as it subjugated Ukraine. Instead, it was the only regional capital Moscow’s forces managed to take control of this year as their invasion at first stalled and then went into reverse.
Now, Kherson is on the cusp of being recaptured by Ukraine after Russian forces were apparently ordered to retreat. On 9 November Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, told Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, on Russian state TV that “we suggest taking defence along the left bank of the Dnieper river”, implying that the city of Kherson – on the right, western bank – would be surrendered to Ukrainian forces. “Begin the withdrawal of troops,” Shoigu replied.
If confirmed the Russian retreat from Kherson would represent the latest in a string of Ukrainian successes on the battlefield. In September, Kyiv’s forces pushed Russia out of most of Kharkiv oblast, in the north-east. They also began pushing south, with the aim of recapturing the symbolic prize of Kherson.
Kherson was always likely to prove difficult to defend because the Russian army’s advance in the south had largely stalled along the left bank of the Dnieper. The city’s position on the right bank made it difficult to defend from troops advancing from the west without the river as a natural barrier.
“It’s a military defeat but not, I suspect, a crucial one,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services and the author of the book Putin’s Wars. “It was obvious Kherson would ultimately fall and the Russians are trying to ensure it’s a managed withdrawal, not a rout.” What’s more, that the Russians are apparently withdrawing from their positions on the right bank of the Dnieper means that further Ukrainian advances in the south will involve crossing the river, which may prove more challenging. “This is a rationalisation of the Russian line, digging in for winter,” Galeotti said.
Yet the defeat will prove especially embarrassing for Vladimir Putin, who illegally declared the Kherson region, as well as three other Ukrainian oblasts, Russian territory in September. The annexations were viewed as a ploy by the Russian president to deter Ukraine and its Western backers by threatening escalation if Ukraine were to retake territory Russia supposedly considers its own.
So far, that threat has proven to be empty. The hugely symbolic Ukrainian victory proves that Kyiv’s forces are able to continue making gains on the battlefield so long as they have Western military and diplomatic support. That will provide some much-needed hope for Ukrainians as they brace for what is likely to be a long and difficult winter.
[See also: How will the Ukraine war end?]