- Share to or
A ‘military necessity’ and an ‘invitation to negotiate’ What’s behind Russia’s retreat from Kherson?
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Emily Laskin.
On November 9, Sergey Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, recommended a retreat from the right bank of the Dnipro River during a live television broadcast. Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu publicly agreed with him. In October, the Kremlin began preparing the Russian public for a retreat in the region, which they assumed would be unpopular with pro-war Russians. Meanwhile, sources close to the Kremlin believe the announcement is meant to be an invitation to Ukraine to resume negotiations.
On the Kherson front, our losses are seven to eight times less than the enemy’s. We’re thinking first and foremost of the lives of Russian soldiers. The decision to set up defense on the left bank of the Dnipro [that is, to retreat from Kherson] was not straightforward, but it will protect the lives of our soldiers and the combat-effectiveness of our troops.
That’s how Sergey Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, officially explained the necessity of leaving Kherson to Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu. Shoigu accepted the argument and ordered the withdrawal of troops on live television.
Meduza sources who are close to the Kremlin were reporting a month ago that Russian troops might leave at least part of the Kherson region. In early November, they said the Kremlin considered the surrender of Kherson a “likely but undesirable scenario.” The final decision, according to sources, must be made by President Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s administration wrote a manual for propagandists to prepare the public for a retreat in Kherson. It advised them to paint Ukraine as manipulative and bloodthirsty, and to emphasize that “Russian troops seek to save the lives of civilians and personnel.”
Surovikin repeated practically every one of the manual’s points, as did Secretary of the General Council for United Russia, Andrey Turchak, who as of May was sure that Russia would be in Kherson “forever.”
“Our boys near Kherson were subject to huge risks. They could be cut off from supply lines at any moment, and maintaining defense in that situation would be extremely complex…The main purpose of today’s maneuver is protecting the population while preserving as many personnel as possible,” Turchak wrote on Telegram.
The Kremlin is well aware that Russians who support the war will receive news of the Russian army’s retreat from Kherson “very negatively.” Meduza’s sources close to Putin’s administration admitted that “it’s a problem.”
Authorities hope that because of mobilization the majority of Russians will identify with the topic of saving soldiers’ lives, which earlier propaganda also bet on. “When members of your own family, your close friends, or even more distant acquaintances, are fighting, you relate differently to military actions,” said one source.
According to another Kremlin source, the Security Council discussed a withdrawal from Kherson in early November in connection not only with the very difficult situation at the front, but also in the context of a return to negotiations with Ukraine.
“It’s not only a military necessity, such a step is also an invitation to negotiations. There’s some change in negotiating positions,” a source said. According to another Meduza source, negotiations are possible but not “in the near term.” And if they do happen, Russia’s official position will be that Kherson, which it formally annexed in September, is “territory occupied by Ukraine.”
As Meduza has already reported, the Kremlin would likely not seek a full-fledged peace treaty in a new round of negotiations, but rather a temporary ceasefire. The Kremlin believes that the Russian and Ukrainian militaries could agree to this without the involvement of either country’s president. Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin believed that Russia would be willing to return part of occupied Kherson in exchange for a ceasefire, buying the Russian army time to prepare a new full-fledged offensive.
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
A few hours before the withdrawal from Kherson was announced, Maria Zakharova, representative of Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that “Russia remains open to negotiating with Ukraine – of course, accounting for the realities of the present moment.”
In a video address from November 7, Volodymyr Zelensky named five conditions for negotiating with Russia. “Again: restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the UN Charter, reparations for all damages caused by the war, punishment of every war criminal, and guarantees that this won’t happen again,” said the Ukrainian president.
He did not, however, repeat his earlier assertion that negotiations are impossible while Vladimir Putin remains president of Russia. Politico noted that, while US officials did not outright tell Zelensky to change his stance, they conveyed that Kyiv should “demonstrate its willingness” to end the war by peaceful means.
According to two sources close to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin’s positions have not changed. The Russian president is firm that Ukraine should at least recognize the Donbas and Crimea as Russian territory. Ideally, he intends to have Russia’s right to all of the occupied territories recognized. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, did not answer Meduza’s questions.
Translation by Emily Laskin
- Share to or