Russia’s loss of Kherson signals change in Putin’s strategy

Ukraine’s step towards victory presents challenges, but demonstrates what can be done with a steady supply of western support

The Russian decision to withdraw from the Ukrainian city of Kherson to defensive positions on the left bank of the Dnipro River was driven by sound military logic. Russian control of the city could only be maintained at a steep price in troops and materiel. Operationally, the withdrawal should help the Russians stabilise their defensive positions over the winter. Strategically, the withdrawal is an unambiguous Russian defeat.

When Ukraine launched its counteroffensive against Kherson at the end of August its military knew it lacked the combat power to storm the city. However, strikes on the bridges over the Dnipro limited Russia’s ability to supply its troops with heavy equipment, while the river protected Ukrainian forces from counterattack. This favourable battlefield geometry allowed Ukraine to create a killing area in which its artillery could inflict heavy casualties on Russia’s most motivated and competent units.

Despite the battlefield favouring Ukraine, over time the Russian military found itself politically fixed. Having annexed the territory, withdrawal was initially viewed as unacceptable and politically dangerous, especially after the backlash from Russian imperialists over the collapse of Russia’s western group of forces near Izium and a chaotic Russian mobilisation. As the only major city successfully seized intact during the invasion, its loss is hard to spin as anything other than a defeat. From a military point of view the city was also defensible for some time, albeit at a price.

Abandoning the city also had implications for Russia’s strategy to occupy Ukraine. Without a bridgehead on the right bank of the Dnipro, Russian forces will not be able to threaten offensive operations in the spring against Mykolaiv, even if it does generate new combat units from its mobilisation. The defensibility of the river, which Russian forces are counting on to stabilise their casualties, also ensures that Ukraine can shift resources from this axis and offers security to Ukrainian industries on its southern coast.

Despite these considerations, the Kremlin eventually concluded that it could more easily weather the political fallout from an orderly withdrawal than from eventually abandoning the city after months more of losses. In doing so Putin has approved a shift in Russia’s strategy; one that seeks to wear out Ukrainian offensive operations against a newly constructed defence line, letting economic warfare exhaust western will and munitions stocks, while regenerating new forces for next year.

For Ukraine the liberation of Kherson is a major victory. It allows the concentration of forces in the north-east and demonstrates to western allies that picking smart fights can bring about the liberation of territory without the need to deliberately assault every Russian-occupied town. There is also the fact that while Russia may still have a theory of victory, those that it has had so far have persistently suffered from optimism bias. That is likely to be inflated by reports that the US military is recommending that Ukraine negotiate.

At the same time Russia’s withdrawal does present Ukraine with some challenges. Russia now has a narrower front to defend and Ukraine no longer has the opportunity to kill large numbers of Russian troops that have a limited capacity to strike back. Although fighting through Russia’s new defence lines risks wearing out Ukrainian units, it is also critical for Ukraine that Russian troops do not have a chance to recuperate over the winter.

Kherson is a step towards victory and demonstrates what can be achieved if there is a steady supply of western military technical assistance. It also underscores the importance of convincing the Kremlin that a managed withdrawal offers better prospects than eventual defeat.

Jack Watling is a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute


Jack Watling

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Putin’s crackdown: how Russia’s journalists became ‘foreign agents’
Will an oppressive new law stifle independent media outlets – or lead to a weakening of the president’s authoritarian regime?

Andrew Roth in Moscow

11, Sep, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
How Ukrainian defiance has derailed Putin’s plans
It’s too early to describe the Kremlin operation as a failure, but it has not succeeded yet in its mission to seize and subjugate its neighbour

Luke Harding in Lviv

26, Feb, 2022 @5:58 PM

Article image
‘They ran away like goats’: villagers celebrate liberation in Kherson region
First reporter to reach Mylove in the Kherson region hears how special forces swept in and the vindictive Russian troops blew up the village school before leaving

Luke Harding in Mylove, Kherson

12, Nov, 2022 @4:20 PM

Article image
Kherson diary: ‘Now we know in person our heroes and our traitors’
Week three of two female journalists’ first-hand account of the Russian occupation of the Ukrainian city

20, Mar, 2022 @6:15 AM

Article image
Putin’s choices filled with peril on eve of Victory Day parade
After repeated military setbacks, the Russian president will have to repackage the conflict to keep his people on-side

Andrew Roth

07, May, 2022 @3:53 PM

Article image
‘My mother says I am betraying Russia’: Putin’s invasion divides the generations
Families torn apart as younger Russians opposing war in Ukraine fall out with older relatives reliant on diet of state propaganda

Pjotr Sauer

13, Mar, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Kherson diary: ‘The poultry all had to be slaughtered. Now the city smells of chicken soup’
A first-hand account of the Russian occupation of the city by two female journalists

12, Mar, 2022 @6:14 PM

Article image
Defiant to the last, Moscow’s media star takes aim at Putin’s brutal clampdown
Natalya Sindeyeva, the founder of Dozhd, struggled to the last but her TV station has been silenced – for now

Tim Adams

06, Mar, 2022 @6:45 AM

Article image
Ukraine: what will China do? There are signs it is uneasy about Putin’s methods
Beijing has held off from backing Russia, raising questions about the extent of any partnership

Patrick Wintour

27, Feb, 2022 @7:15 AM

Article image
From partygate to Putin’s war: Boris Johnson rides on a rare wave of unity
The prime minister’s stirring rhetoric on the invasion of Ukraine earns him a reprieve from his woes… for now at least

Toby Helm Political editor

26, Feb, 2022 @8:30 PM