Bob Seely is MP for the Isle of Wight. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. His doctrinal thesis was on integrated Russian warfare.
Russia’s abandonment of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson is complete. Thousands of Russian troops have pulled out in the past few days. Ukrainian soldiers, increasingly confident, disciplined, and battle-tested, have taken their place.
Although this latest Russian defeat is symbolically dreadful, militarily the withdrawal is entirely sensible. Contrary to much reporting, it does not change the overall strategic picture and it does not, in itself, herald a new phase of the war.
Yes, symbolism in war and politics is important. Kherson was the only regional capital in Ukraine that Russia captured after the start of the conflict in February. It was also the potential springboard for attacking the cities of Odessa and Mykolayiv. When I was in southern Ukraine in April, there was still a danger that those cities would be stormed. Air raid warnings were frequent and attacks regular. Those cities are now safe from ground attack.
However, the retreat should be seen as part of Russia’s evolving strategy, which is now two-fold. First, hold a defensible line. Second, target Ukrainian willingness to fight. The combination of the two, the Kremlin hopes, will force Kyiv and its Western backers to the negotiating table, where the price for a peace deal will be for Ukraine to relinquish the land that Russia seized in February and still holds. Putin will then present the return of these ‘Russian lands’ as a noble victory of Russian arms over NATO, and one worth the sacrifice of up to 100,000 dead and injured.
As to the first point, General Sergei Surovikin, Russia’s new commander, could not hold Kherson City, which sits on the western side of the Dnipro. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers risked entrapment in the city with the river behind them. The barges and pontoon bridges, vulnerable to artillery and air attack, were Russia’s only lines of withdrawal. It was a death trap. That it was Sergei Shoigu, the Defence minister, who publicly made the announcement shows that General Surovikin has political support for this move and that the withdrawal is a collective decision to avoid the humiliation of actual defeat.
With Russian troops on the eastern bank of the Dnipro, the river and its wide estuary becomes a highly significant barrier to Ukraine advance. The Dnipro, the smaller Konka river and the grassland, sandbanks and marshes that line the rivers are between one and three miles wide. Further upriver, near Zaparozhia, the Dnipro is in places more than five miles wide. Ukraine’s next advances are unlikely to come over water.
Russia’s second element to its strategy is to destroy Ukraine’s willingness to fight by targeting civilian infrastructure. Water and electricity are particular targets. Putin hopes that Ukrainians – and its Western allies – lack the endurance for a protracted war that could still go nuclear. Such targeting is clearly against the norms and rules of modern conflict. This tactic bares the particular hallmark of Gen. Surovikin who, whilst commanding Russian forces in Syria, prioritised the targeting of civilian targets such as hospitals to destroy the morale of Syrian rebels.
More broadly, Russia has also signalled, by blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines, that it is also ready to attack western infrastructure. On that point, Russia may have been involved in the damaged to Internet cables between Britain and the Shetland Isles in October.
So Russia’s retreat from Kherson does not herald a new phase of the conflict. The current phase of the war started back in September when Russian positions in Kharkiv in the north-east Ukraine collapsed. From that moment onwards it was clear then that Russia’s offensive war had, under the current circumstances, come to an end. Putin signalled this by incorporating seized territory into the Russian state, mobilising 300,000 reservists, many of whom are now on the front line, and threatening the use of nuclear weapons.
Provided the front stabilises now, the Russian regime will have bought some time to hit multiple civilian infrastructure targets in Ukraine. The next phase will likely be signalled should Ukrainian break the Russian lines and advance further, in the south between Zaparozhia and Donetsk, or in the east in the Donbas. At that point Russia will face a more generalised collapse, and Putin will then decide whether to use tactical nuclear or chemical weapons – or perhaps strike the Zaparozhia nuclear power plant.
However, if there is one significant impact of the loss of Kherson – over and above the PR disaster – it is in the increasing despair of the nationalist/fascist and military blogger community. From their widely read blogs on social media and elsewhere, it is clear that deep malaise is creeping in. They do not appear yet to have found common cause with the wives, partners and relatives of the tens of thousands of Russian dead. Should they do, Putin may begin to face greater internal pressure. Until then, the new Russian line and evolving tactics are likely to be the calm before a Ukrainian offensive storm in the Spring or late winter.