Russia's war against Ukraine appears to be at a turning point. There are growing indications that Kyiv could recapture the occupied city of Kherson, deep in southern Ukraine. As government forces have stepped up their offensive in the region, Russian media report that the Kremlin has begun moving about 60,000 civilians and administrative staff from Ukrainian territories on the right bank of the Dnieper River to the other side. It is unclear how many people remain on the right bank. According to Ukraine's government, more than half a million people have left the area since Russia invaded in February.
Joachim Krause, director of the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK), told DW that the Kremlin could now forcibly move parts of the population to Russia after "martial law" was recently declared in the annexed territories. "It is not certain how long these territories will remain under Russian occupation. We are currently seeing that the military administration in Kherson is trying to evacuate the civilian population — probably against their will," Krause said. "I fear that this is the real motive."
Because Ukraine's army has targeted the few bridges that there were, ferries and pontoon crossings are being used for the "evacuation."On Friday, Ukrainian forces repeatedly shelled the Antonivsky Bridge, the largest in Kherson. Russian sources reported that three people were killed and several injured.
The Austrian colonel and military historian Markus Reisner told DW that this is a "decisive situation ahead of the winter." He called the Kherson campaign "the most important and decisive" offensive for Ukraine. He pointed out that Russian troops had managed to cross the Dnieper River at the beginning of the invasion in February and suggested that the Kremlin's forces might eventually use the bridgehead for an advance on Odesa. This would give Russia complete control over access to the Black Sea and turn Ukraine into a landlocked country. Kyiv intends to prevent this — at all costs.
The strategic Dnieper
The Dnieper is the largest and most important river in Ukraine. It has an average width of over 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) and divides the country between east and west, forming a natural barrier. It is also an important supplier of energy, with many hydroelectric power plants that date back to the Soviet era.
So far, Russia's army has only been able to cross the river in the south — around Kherson, where it has established a bridgehead. The region, which Russia recently annexed along with three more, was almost completely occupied within the first days of the war. It includes the only land route to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. After Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine's government shut down a canal that supplied the very dry peninsula with water from the Dnieper. Russia put it back into operation after invading in February.
Since February, Russian troops have barely advanced, however. And Ukraine's army recently liberated a string of towns in the region. This has been made possible by targeted shelling of bridges on the Dnieper since July, which disrupted the Kremlin's supply routes. Reisner said there were two signs that Russia could give up the bridgehead at Kherson: the "evacuation" of civilians and the fact that military regroupings are being discussed on Russian social networks.
Retreat from Kherson?
Reisner said bridges had been "severely damaged" by Ukraine's army, and Russia does not have enough pontoon bridges. "If the strategy of the Russians is to consolidate a strong line before the winter, it seems logical that they could abandon the west bank and return to the east bank," he said. But this would mean that Russia would not be able to attack Mykolaiv and Odesa from Kherson — at least for the time being.
Observers say recent remarks by General Sergei Surovikin, Russia's new commander in Ukraine, confirm that the Kremlin could be considering a retreat. On television, Surovikin said the situation was "not easy," and he did not rule out "difficult decisions." That would represent a change in the Kremlin's stance. As recently as late September, The New York Times reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had rejected requests from the army to retreat from Kherson.
For now, as Russia prepares to defend strategically and symbolically important Kherson, there is speculation as to what might happen at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant a few kilometers upstream. Surovikin has alleged that Ukraine is preparing a rocket strike on the dam — which Kyiv denies — and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of mining it and plotting to blow it up. He has warned of a "large-scale disaster" should this happen.
This article was originally published in German.