A Kherson resident hugs a Ukrainian defence force member (photo: AP)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky raised the Ukrainian flag in Kherson city this week, four days after forcing Russia to withdraw from it. It is hard to explain this in terms of victory or loss. But Russia has undoubtedly incurred a high cost for its incursion into Ukraine. For example, the partial mobilisation it declared severl aweeks ago, the reported havoc of the process and its domestic repercussions exposed some of Russia’s strategic and logistical miscalculations and the flaws in its planning.
Moscow’s announcement, in tandem with the withdrawal from Kherson, that it would grant citizenship to anyone who signed up with the army for a year also reflected the magnitude of the problems it is facing nine months after the start of the war. Russia has not gained full control of the Ukrainian territories it annexed and it is believed that it will refocus its energies there in order to consolidate its hold on Luhansk and Donetsk.
Russia would not willingly relinquish a town it controlled, especially one as prized as the strategically situated Kherson, which it seized early on in the war, unless it felt that the costs of holding onto it were too great. True, Russia has not withdrawn from the whole of the Kherson Oblast. It continues to hold the portion east of the Dnipro. Still, it must be aware of the potential strategic challenges Ukraine’s forces would pose if they moved from Kherson to other Russian-controlled areas.
Some military analysts have suggested that General Sergei Surovikin, who was appointed general commander of Russian operations in Ukraine in early October, believed that his predecessor had committed a major strategic mistake, which he decided to rectify by withdrawing the forces from Kherson and fortifying defences in the Donbas. Others have suggested that the withdrawal may have been, in part, the product of behind-the-scenes dealings between Moscow and the West, whereby Russia took a step back in exchange for some reduction in Western sanctions under which the Russian economy is reeling.
Both Russia and the US have denied reports that the two sides struck a secret deal allowing Russia to retain parts of the areas it has seized. However, the scenario cannot be ruled out. It is unlikely that the Russians retreated to the east of the Dnipro in Kherson just because they had encountered some difficulties in Kherson city on the west bank. Perhaps Syria is somewhere to look for a precedent. As the Bashar Al-Assad regime regained territory, Russia would not let it go beyond the Euphrates where American forces are stationed. It could be that a river - a natural boundary - is the common denominator here.
It is also important to bear in mind Zelensky’s references to the possibility of peace during his visit to Kherson. The city’s liberation is “the beginning of the end of the war,” he said in front of the provincial administration building in the town square. He vowed to drive Russian forces out of the rest of the country, but he also said, “We are ready for peace, peace for all our country.” It marked a significant shift from the escalatory, vengeful tone of previous speeches. Two weeks ago, it was reported that Washington had privately asked Kyiv to show some openness to diplomacy as a way to allay concerns among its supporters that the war is going to drag on indefinitely.
Ukrainian officials have reiterated Kyiv’s maximalist stance which is that they will continue to fight until they liberate all of Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea. But at some level in the Ukrainian leadership there may be a realisation that the majority in Crimea and the Donbas favour the Russian side. Moscow, for its part, may have calculated that making a significant sacrifice in the interest of promoting a settlement would serve its interests better than a protracted battle.
It is too early to make conjectures with any degree of certainty. Some European leaders are sceptical about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Kherson. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wondered whether the Russian withdrawal was a trap.
Russia has claimed Genichesk on the east bank as the new administrative capital of Kherson, according to Russian media outlets. However, Russian officials have stressed that this is temporary, which suggests either that Moscow is waiting for its military situation to improve in order to return to Kherson city or that it is posturing in anticipation of developments in talks with Western powers regarding the normalisation of Russia’s presence in Ukraine and/or NATO guarantees not to incorporate Ukraine and halt its expansionist policy.
The US think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), expects fighting in the Donbas to continue and possibly intensify. If so, the Russian decision to relinquish Kherson would not mark a turn in the corner towards a ceasefire, not as long as hostilities continue in the northeast.
Moscow continues to play its cards very close to its chest with regard to its intensions as concerns Kherson and other fronts. Kremlin Spokesman Dimitry Peskov still claims that Kherson is Russian territory. It is unclear whether he is referring just to the eastern portion of the Oblast still under Russian control, perhaps as a face-saving measure. Whatever the case, Moscow clearly took a decision not to risk continuing the battle to hold Kherson city against a fierce Ukrainian offensive to retake it.
Russia had some 20,000 troops stationed in the city. Perhaps it calculated that it would have increasing difficulties in holding off a Ukrainian advance and reinforcing and supplying its own forces as Ukraine destroyed bridges over the Dnipro and so determined that it would be wiser to retreat in an orderly fashion and save all that manpower and equipment. As for whether Moscow plans to stage another offensive to regain Kherson city at some point and other scenarios regarding combat or negotiations, the alternatives it is contemplating and the options it has should become clearer soon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.