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