Russia’s biggest victory in its war in Ukraine is just a few steps away from becoming its biggest defeat. Beset by the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russian Defense Ministry has ordered its troops to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnieper River and leave Kherson, a major port city and the only regional capital that Kremlin forces had managed to occupy since the February 24th. They succeeded in the first days of the war thanks to a surprise blitzkrieg in an area that was not well protected; by February, most of Ukraine’s troops—and the best trained—were in Donbas, where Moscow was heating up a localized war in the east that had already lasted eight years.
Vladimir Putin’s failure in Kherson is enormous. In September, after holding pseudo-referendums, the president signed the annexation to Russia of that city and its region —with access to the Black and Azov Seas— and three others that were partially occupied. Illegal annexations that have not been recognized by the international community. But for Putin, who considers Ukraine a fictitious country and launched his war to take away its sovereignty, they are Russia; at least on paper. The Kremlin chief, who has constantly raised nuclear threats against Ukraine and the West, stressed that he would use all means at his disposal to protect Russian territory.
When a source systematically lies, as Russia does, their announcements and statements must be quarantined. And there are military analysts and experts who fear that Moscow, following the pattern of other wars, will take advantage of the Kherson withdrawal announcement to launch some kind of large-scale attack. The Government of Volodímir Zelenski is very cautious, military sources acknowledge that there are “signs” of withdrawal but also that there are still between 30,000 and 50,000 Russian soldiers in Kherson.
The truth, with the information on the ground, is that the Kremlin has been preparing for weeks for a withdrawal. The general appointed in extremis, after other defeats, to lead the invasion, Sergei Surovikin, known for his participation in the war in Syria and his attacks against civilian infrastructure, pointed out that he would have to make “difficult decisions”.
The Kremlin troops will leave behind a looted, leaky city with hardly any water, gas or electricity supply, according to sources on the ground. They have also probably planted a fair amount of mines and booby traps. Now, the Kremlin would be trying to ensure that its withdrawal across the river is not as chaotic as other withdrawals, in which it has left behind hundreds of armored vehicles, weapons systems and ammunition, which Ukraine has taken advantage of.
Kherson was not a lightning counteroffensive by the Ukrainian Army, like the one launched in September in the northeast of the country, taking advantage of the fact that much of the Russian attention was precisely on the Kherson front, where the counteroffensive had been widely publicized. When this correspondent visited, at the end of May and beginning of June, several points of the Kherson front and the trenches of the Ukrainian troops in the area, the Ukrainian operation to retake the port city was already being prepared. However, on the ground many wickers were missing. And above all, troops and cutting-edge weapons. The Ukrainian special forces were then in Donbas – trying to defend the cities of Severodonetsk and Lisichansk – and also their best weapons. Of course, at that time, the Russian troops had already moved into defensive positions in the area.
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The Ukrainian operation in Kherson, supported by Western-provided long-range precision weaponry and intelligence, has been systematic. Volodymyr Zelensky’s army has advanced meter by meter, village by village, pushing Russian troops against the Dnieper River. On Wednesday, he recaptured Snihurivka, a town north of the city of Kherson that has been key to continuing pressure on Putin’s forces.
As he usually does with news that is hard to swallow, the Russian leader – who did announce the invasion in the early hours of February 23-24, the illegal annexation of the occupied areas and the mobilization for combat – has left his Defense Minister , Sergei Shoigu, and General Surovikin to announce the withdrawal from Kherson. Putin had so far steadfastly refused to leave the city. Moscow disguises the resounding defeat behind the intention of “preserving the life” of its troops whom Putin has sent to fight from the beginning of the invasion in harsh conditions, with anachronistic equipment, without good training and even without supplies.
If Ukraine recaptures Kherson, the counteroffensive will fuel Ukrainian forces and Western support. But although the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus has been preparing its public opinion, the loss of the port city and the humiliation of the Russian troops may also lead to a wave of criticism in Russia, especially from the most ultra-nationalist sectors and groups affected by the mobilization, who are now training to join the cannon fodder on the fronts. While Shoigú and Surovikin announced the Russian withdrawal from Kherson, Putin dispatched health matters in a meeting broadcast on public television with a bored gesture. The head of the Kremlin hopes that winter will arrive with force. The Ukrainian counteroffensive towards the western bank of the Dnieper will be complicated and the military challenges – and the pressure on the civilian population, with heating, gas and electricity cuts – will also grow.
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