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Russia's retreat from Kherson is no reason to celebrate

Goncharenko Roman
Roman Goncharenko
November 11, 2022

Ukraine's response to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson is subdued. That's a justified reaction, because Russia's defeat is still a long way off, says DW's Roman Goncharenko.

Two Ukrainian men with bicycles greet each other on the street in  front of bombed out buildings
Russia's withdrawal from parts of Kherson has been met with relief by UkrainainsImage: Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA/IMAGO

Is Russia really retreating? Is Russian President Vladimir Putin leaving the southern city of Kherson to Ukrainian forces — the one provincial capital that has been occupied since the start of the war in late February? Can this really be happening when the ink on the papers illegally annexing four Ukranian regions, including Kherson, is barely dry? 

This is exactly what happened. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced on Friday that the retreat was complete.

Cautious initial reactions from Kyiv show that this news is hard for Ukrainians to believe, even when they've been working toward it for so long. Ever since June, the Ukrainian army has been using US-provided HIMARS missile systems to systematically attack and damage bridges over the Dnieper, the country's longest river. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for Russian troops on the right or west bank, where Kherson is situated, to resupply.

Roman Goncharenko
DW editor Roman GoncharenkoImage: DW

Russia’s Defense Ministry has said all its forces and equipment were now on the Dnieper's east bank. 

Nevertheless, Ukraine's restraint is justified. Russia's retreat is a gigantic, historic defeat of the Russian army, comparable to the failed attempt to take the capital Kyiv at the start of the war. It's a blow to the Russian army's much-touted patriotism and battle morale, which was already low.

Putin has learned from previous mistakes

From a military perspective, this defeat is particularly significant: Losing the right bank of the Dnieper means Russia also loses the bridgehead needed to advance toward Mykolaiv and Odesa, two places where the outcome of the war could be decided. If Ukraine can hold onto these strategic areas, there is a good chance that Russia's whole military campaign may finally fail, bringing Putin's regime down with it.

This could be why, according to The New York Times, Putin reportedly recently forbade his generals from surrendering Kherson. His changed stance shows that he has learned from prior mistakes — and this is dangerous in terms of his future plans.

From a Russian perspective, it makes sense to give up the bridgehead on the right bank, which is difficult to defend and resupply. Western military experts have said the same. But those who have previously looked for any underlying logic to Russia's actions in Ukraine have only wasted their time. This war has been an act of insanity since Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and it remains one today.

A battered tank sits in a field in Ukraine
Destroyed Russian equipment litters the field of Kherson provinceImage: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Numerous articles and books describe how Russia has traditionally shown little regard for human losses during conflict. The war in Ukraine is no exception. The frontline of more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) is so long that Russia simply doesn't have enough fighters to hold it. That's why Russia needed to mobilize tens of thousands of reservists in September, and the partial mobilization order will be extended.

The retreat from Kherson is humiliating for Putin, but that he agreed to it shows he is no longer allowed to get as personally involved in the war's planning as he previously was, prior to a series of defeats. However, Putin won't give up his plans to occupy as much Ukrainian territory as possible and topple the government in Kyiv. 

Kherson could share the fate of Mariupol 

Restraint is also correct in such a situation because Russia is unlikely to give the Ukrainian army a chance to establish itself and spend the oncoming winter there. There's a chance the Russian army will blow up the dam at Nova Kakhovka, upstream from Kherson, and blame it on Ukraine. This would be catastrophic for region's inhabitants and prevent Ukraine advancing. Even if this doesn't occur, Russia could fire from the left bank at Ukrainian positions in Kherson. The city risks turning into ruins, like Mariupol

Over the winter, Kherson could experience static battles, with little movement to the battlefront.

In contrast, fighting is expected to intensify in the Donbas. It's conceivable that Russia will beef up its troops there with those now being withdrawn from Kherson. This happened after Russia's defeat in Kyiv, and it helped them capture the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. The experience taught Ukraine not to celebrate prematurely. It's a long road to the defeat of Russia.

The most important lesson from Kherson is that Ukraine has again proven it can successfully hold its own against Russia and the country's superior resources. This is also important for Western support, which is key for Ukraine. Without it, there wouldn't be a Ukrainian victory in Kherson.

Ukraine reclaims dozens of towns from Russian control

This article has been translated from German.