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‘Big win’ or ‘wait and see’? What Russia’s retreat from Kherson means for the Ukraine war

With Russian troops beating a hasty retreat from the strategic port city of Kherson Friday, the frontlines have been redrawn in Ukraine. But experts advise caution.

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New Delhi: In what is being seen as a major strategic loss for it, Russia has announced that it has completed its withdrawal from the land it had captured west of the River Dnipro in Ukraine, with troops reportedly making a hasty retreat from the southern port city of Kherson Friday. With this exit, nearly nine months since the war began, the frontlines have completely been redrawn.

Since Russia’s 9 November withdrawal announcement, Ukraine quickly took control of several landmine-littered villages in the Kherson region, images appeared of wounded Russian soldiers being abandoned and captured, and jubilant Kherson city residents tweeted about greeting Ukrainian soldiers in the town square.


However, experts warn that this should not be seen as Russia conceding defeat in Kherson oblast (province). The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a think-tank based in Washington D.C., cautioned that the “battle of Kherson” was not over, but the that Russian forces were entering a fresh phase —“prioritising withdrawing their forces across the river in good order and delaying Ukrainian forces, rather than seeking to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive entirely”.

Nevertheless, Kherson city was the only regional capital Russia had taken over since its invasion in February, and the loss of it is one of the most defining moments in the war since the retreat from national capital Kiev and then, later, the loss of huge swathes of land in Kharkiv.

Much as it gave a positive spin to its withdrawal from Kyiv as a “goodwill gesture” and retreat from Kharkiv as part of a strategy to focus of Donetsk, Russia has claimed that the decision to pull out of Kherson was to benefit its troops and out of concern for Ukrainian civilians.

General Surovikin, who controlled Russia’s campaign in Syria before recently being put in charge of military operations in Ukraine, announced that the withdrawal from Kherson was to “preserve the lives of our troops and combat readiness of our units”.

Significantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not take part in the staged event to announce the withdrawal, although he had come front and centre to announce the takeover of Kherson in March 2022.

So, how has Ukraine reacted, how are the battle frontlines placed, and why is Kherson important?

Also read: How ‘graveyard’ of Russian tanks in Ukraine is upending armour doctrines worldwide & for India

A cautious reaction

While the Kherson retreat has been described as a “hard-fought victory” after Ukraine’s counter-offensive and as “Russia’s most serious military defeat since 1991,” Ukraine has taken a restrained official line.

In his nightly address Wednesday, after the withdrawal was announced, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukraine was going to move ahead “very carefully.”

“The enemy does not give us gifts, does not make ‘goodwill gestures’,” Zelenskyy said. “Therefore, we move very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk. In the interests of the liberation of all our entire land and so that the losses are as small as possible,” he added.

Tactically, three reasons explain the initial restraint towards the Russian retreat. Firstly, Ukraine expected Russia to have left behind booby traps and mines to hinder any Ukrainian advances. Secondly, there are concerns Russia will now prioritise bombarding Kherson as their troops have withdrawn. Finally, Russia will now also likely double down on targeting civilian infrastructure, as they have done after any setback throughout the war.

In New York, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday, “I believe they’re doing it in order to preserve their force, to re-establish defensive lines south of the river, but that remains to be seen”,

Nevertheless, the withdrawal means that the battle frontlines have been redrawn in Ukraine.

New battle frontlines

Since the war began in February, it has seen three distinct seasons — Ukraine’s heroic defence in the spring, Russia’s manoeuvres in the summer, and Ukraine’s consequent counteroffensive in the autumn.

Specifically, analysis from the ISW shows that the west and north of Ukraine remain firmly under Kyiv’s control, albeit with sporadic long-distance strikes on civilian infrastructure in the region.

In Kharkiv oblast, in the northeast of the country, Ukraine continues its hold over the territory, after re-taking it from Russia in September. Reports suggest that Ukraine has retaken over 6,000 square kilometres in the region. However, the attacking of civilian infrastructure and power grids by the Russians continues here.

In the east of the country, specifically in Luhansk and Donetsk, fighting between the two countries continues.

“Ukrainian forces continued to conduct counteroffensive operations on the Svatove-Kreminna line on November 10,” the ISW reported on 10 November. Ukrainian forces advanced by two kilometres in Luhansk oblast on Thursday, while Russian forces reportedly claimed to have repelled Ukrainian attacks near Stelmakhivka, a village in the province.

Further, Donetsk oblast remains the only place where Russia is still carrying out a meaningful offensive. As of Thursday, Russia carried out offensive operations in Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Donetsk city.

Most experts assess that Russia is unlikely to give up the fight in the south, despite the withdrawal from Kherson city.

Importance of Kherson

Kherson’s ports and power plants make it a region of “vital importance”  to the Ukrainian economy, according to Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies, Kings College, London.

Further, given its location in the south of Ukraine, experts assess it to be an important gateway to the Crimean peninsula. Its position on the banks of the Dnipro River also give it strategic advantage when it comes to controlling water supply.

Reports suggest that control over the Kherson oblast, which Ukraine could have by the end of November, will enable them to use western-supplied long-range artillery systems to target Russian ammunition depots and logistic sites that are towards Crimea, thus undermining their supply chains.

Symbolically, being the only regional capital that had been captured by Russia, retaking it also gives an important morale boost to the Ukrainian forces, government, people, and allies.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Why the famed Russian Air Force failed in Ukraine and the vital lessons IAF can draw from it





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