‘Undesirable but likely’ How the Putin administration plans to sell a Russian retreat from Kherson to the public
On November 7, the Russian-backed occupation authorities in Kherson announced that the evacuation of the city’s civilian residents to the left bank of the Dnipro River was complete. Moscow’s claims the measure was necessary because Ukraine is planning an attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, which would likely cause massive flooding, though according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it’s Russian forces themselves who have mined the power station. In reality, Moscow fears that a large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive on the city may be imminent — and has begun laying the groundwork to explain a Russian retreat to the public if need be. Meduza has obtained two new documents prepared by the Putin administration that outline how Russia’s propaganda outlets should cover the situation in Kherson. We also spoke to multiple sources close to the Russian authorities about the Kremlin’s plans — and contingency plans — in southern Ukraine.
Meduza has learned from sources close to the Kremlin that the Putin administration has prepared multiple new messaging guides for Russia’s propaganda outlets. The new materials contain instructions for covering the situation in Kherson; specifically, they’re intended to prepare the public for the possibility that Russian troops will abandon Kherson. Meduza has obtained two of the documents.
One of the guides calls the Kherson front is the “most difficult for the Russian army at the current stage of the special [military] operation.” Propagandists are told to explain that this is because it’s “vitally important” for Ukraine to “demonstrate the combat capability of its territorial formations in order to ask for more assistance from the West.”
Russian-backed authorities began transporting people from the right bank of the Dnipro River in the annexed part of Ukraine’s Kherson region in mid-October. In early November, Vladimir Putin said that Kherson’s “civilian population” needed to be “removed” from the combat zone, and the occupation authorities announced a “mandatory evacuation.” On November 7, the “evacuation” was declared over — though some residents have remained in the city, awaiting the Ukrainian army.
As another reason for Russia’s possible retreat from Kherson, the propaganda guide recommends citing the fact that Ukraine and NATO countries have “thrown all of their forces” at this very part of the front — and that staying and fighting would thus risk “massive bloodshed.”
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it was in fact Russian soldiers who mined the dam at the Kakhovka Power Plant. The dam's destruction could cause approximately 80 Ukrainian towns and villages to be flooded, including Kherson.
The propagandists are also told to stress that urban combat in Kherson would be “impractical” since that mode of warfare is “always the most difficult and destructive” and the Ukrainian army “may simply raze Kherson to the ground.”
As Meduza has previously reported, Russia’s troops in Kherson are indeed in a difficult position. Supplying them is extremely difficult as their main bases are located on the opposite bank of the Dnipro and Ukrainian forces are constantly shelling the bridges over the water. These difficulties make sending reinforcements to fully defend the city effectively impossible.
The Kremlin’s second guide notes that propagandists should “draw attention” to the words of diplomat, historian, and Russian Security Council academic council member Anatoly Torkunov. In a recent meeting with Putin and other historians, Torkunov recalled the 1709 Battle of Poltava, noting that before Russia’s victory, Peter the Great “retreated to Poltava” — and that it was this retreat that marked the “turning point in the war.”
Two sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that the Russian authorities currently consider it “undesirable” but “likely” that they will have to surrender Kherson. Russian officials (including high-ranking ones) have previously claimed that Russia is in the newly-occupied territory “for good.”
“Addressing the residents of the Kherson region, I want to say once more that Russia is here forever. There should be no doubt about this. There will be no return to the past. We’re going to live together,” said United Russia General Secretary Andrey Turchak in May.
At the same time, Meduza’s sources noted that what happens at the front will ultimately depend not on Moscow but on the Ukrainian Armed Forces. “If there’s no massive offensive, then there will be no surrender,” said one source. “If there is [an offensive], [a surrender] is very, very likely.”
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According to the sources, the ultimate decision about whether to retreat from Kherson will be made by Putin himself with the involvement of people from his “inner circle” (which, since the start of the war, has mainly consisted of high-ranking security officials). At the time of publication, Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov had not responded to Meduza’s questions.
At the same time, according to the sources, the Kremlin still believes that in the winter of 2023, the Russian army will be able to conduct a new large-scale offensive in Ukraine. As Meduza has previously reported, the Kremlin has been raising the topic of peace negotiations with growing frequency in a bid to buy time to prepare as many soldiers as possible. Western news outlets have reported that Odesa could be a possible target for the offensive — and that Russia could aim to make Odesa its “main strategic prize in the next stage of the war.”