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General Surovikin’s ‘difficult decision’ revealed What Russia’s retreat from Kherson means for the war's future
Explainer by Meduza. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
On Wednesday, November 9, General Sergey Surovikin, Russia’s top commander in Ukraine, proposed to Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu that Russia withdraw its troops from the right bank of the Dnipro River in Ukraine’s Kherson region; Shoigu assented immediately. A complete Russian retreat from the right bank will entail, among other things, abandoning the city of Kherson, which the Kremlin has considered a "Russian regional capital” since October. Meduza assesses whether Russia’s retreat from Kherson was inevitable — and what it means in the wider context of the war.
In this article, our editors attempt to assess the military situation in Ukraine based on the available data. Meduza has consistently opposed Russia’s war against Ukraine and continues to do so.
The news that Russia will retreat from Kherson didn't come without warning: General Sergey Surovikin hinted at the possibility of a “difficult decision” back in October. Not long before that, the Kremlin's local puppet authorities announced measures to evacuate civilians from the Dnipro River’s right bank, where the city of Kherson lies. To explain the evacuation, Surovikin cited the difficulty of transporting supplies over the Antonivka Road Bridge, which was damaged by Ukrainian shelling in August and thus unusable. In fact, the decision to leave Kherson had likely already been made at the time of Surovikin’s October statement; soon after it, Russian troops began transporting local civilians, valuables, documents, and supplies out of the city, as well as building fortifications along the river’s left bank.
Russia’s withdrawal is not a direct response to any recent changes at the front; for the last month, the only fighting on the Dnipro’s right bank has been local. Russian media outlets have frequently referred to a “Ukrainian offensive” (and have offered images of small convoys of destroyed Ukrainian armored vehicles as "proof"), but Ukrainian sources deny that characterization. For whatever reason, the Ukrainian army has not seen any major successes in the area for about a month now. But major successes are fully within Ukraine’s reach: it has a numerical advantage that could very well be enough to overcome Russia’s forces. And because of Russia’s supply difficulties, there’s currently little it could do to increase its own numbers.
Thus the actual reason for Russia’s retreat is its lack of prospects in the case of a real Ukrainian offensive. Defending the city against a Ukrainian offensive would require a high number of combat-ready troops, but these troops would have limited resources due to supply issues. As a result, Russia has concluded that they’ll be more effective elsewhere.
How did Russia end up in this situation?
In March, Russian airborne troops, marines, and coastal defense forces from Crimea took advantage of the collapse of Ukraine’s defenses in the area to capture Kherson and advance:
- west (to the Mykolaiv city limits)
- northwest (to a bridge across the Southern Bug River near the city of Voznesensk)
- and north (to the outskirts of the city of Kryvyi Rih)
The main line of advance was in Voznesensk, from where Russia’s military command planned to send troops into Odesa. The troops were supplied via several bridges: the Antonivka Road Bridge in Kherson, a nearby railroad bridge, and a bridge that crossed over the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in Nova Kakhovka, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) eastward.
Even in early March, however, it was clear that Russia didn't have the forces necessary for such an ambitious offensive. Rapidly deploying reserves to the area was not feasible, and Ukrainian shelling forced Russia’s troops to withdraw from Mykolaiv, Voznesensk, and Kryvyi Rih back to the Kherson regional border. There, as well as around the city of Snihurivka in the Mykolaiv region, they started building defenses. Geography provided some assistance: the landscape in the area is made up primarily of bare steppes with only occasional belts of forest, which means there would be nowhere for advancing Ukrainian troops to hide. Russian forces placed a significant portion of their defenses along the Inhulets River.
The Ukrainian army tried to cross the river over the summer, but ultimately suffered heavy losses. An attempted Ukrainian offensive from Mykolaiv, which doesn’t have any major water obstacles, also failed when Ukrainians troops came under attack by Russian air and artillery forces on the steppe. After that, the front became stable as the fighting seemed to settle into a war of attrition, and in July and August, Russia’s command sent significant reinforcements to the Dnipro’s right bank.
After that, Ukraine’s military began employing a new tactic: instead of head-on assaults on Russia’s positions, they started targeting Russian logistics, including by systematically destroying warehouses with Russian munitions. This wasn’t possible before August; Ukraine’s army didn’t have the powerful high-precision and long-range weapons necessary to pull it off. In late summer, however, Ukraine received HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, which are capable of carrying out high-precision strikes far behind the front line.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces began launching daily strikes on bridges that were key to Russia’s supply lines. Though the missiles’ warheads weren’t capable of completely destroying the bridges, Ukraine was soon rendering bridges’ roadbeds unusable faster than Russian engineers could repair them. By mid-October, Ukraine had taken out all three bridges across the Dnipro river in the Russian-controlled part of the Kherson region.
For the last few months, Russia has been using boats to transfer supplies both to its troops and to civilians in Kherson. Ukraine’s attempts to launch strikes on the vessels have had mixed results: GPS-guided multiple rocket launchers are poorly suited for attacks on moving targets. Still, Ukrainian strikes have hit Russian military ferries more than once.
Most importantly, however, ferries and other boats have an inherently lower transport capacity than bridges — and Russia simply didn’t have enough vessels to make up for the difference (even after commandeering multiple barges from local businessmen). Additionally, Russian forces needed to supply several hundreds of thousands of civilians who remained in Kherson and its outskirts.
Russia’s command was ultimately unable to meaningfully increase its numbers in Kherson; it simply didn’t have the supply capacity to sustain more than the few tens of thousands of troops it already had stationed in the city. All Ukraine would have had to do for a successful offensive would be to assemble more forces in the area than Russia had.
Ukraine proceeded to gather the necessary troops, but the first month of its offensive (from late August until early October) was largely unsuccessful: any Ukrainian troops that crossed the Inhulets River were subjected to nonstop Russian artillery fire and airstrikes. Ukraine managed to liberate a number of villages, but was unable to get all the way to the Dnipro.
In early October, Ukraine’s military command, having the initiative and a numerical advantage, managed to find a weak spot in Russia’s line of defense: a point along the Dnipro that was being defended by infantry from a Crimean coastal defense brigade who were already exhausted from previous fighting. Ukraine managed to penetrate the front line and advance dozens of kilometers, ultimately forcing Russian troops in the northern section of Russia's Kherson bridgehead to retreat in order to build a new defense line. The front stabilized along this new line, and Ukraine began assembling reinforcements for a new offensive.
When the dust settled, Russia's troops in the region found themselves in a significantly worse position:
- Ukraine now had the initiative and could choose the time and location of its next offensive.
- It was fundamentally impossible for Russia to augment its grouping due to supply difficulties.
- Russia’s long-term prospects appeared hopeless. Sooner or later, Ukraine would conduct a successful offensive (using the same approach it used in early October).
- The only way Russia could have saved its troops in Kherson would have been to regain the initiative in the war as a whole — but then as now, the Russian Armed Forces were clearly not capable of successfully conducting a major offensive.
Is this Russia's biggest defeat in the war so far?
From a political perspective, it’s certainly one of the biggest. If Shoigu and Surovikin are to be believed, then Russia's troops are fleeing from Kherson — the “capital” of a region that, from the Kremlin’s perspective, has already been Russian territory for a month. Still, Ukraine will gain control of just 23 percent of the Kherson region, most of which is on the Dnipro River’s left bank. Russia will still control the territory where its main supply bases are located.
From a military perspective, things are more complicated, because Russian troops will be transferred to more favorable positions — and will now be easier to supply.
However, this also comes with caveats:
- It’s clear that until at least the end of the summer, one of the Kremlin’s goals was to capture Odesa. Russia’s withdrawal from the Dnipro’s right bank will make this effectively impossible.
- With its retreat across the Dnipro River, Russia will free up some of its combat-ready troops — but it will free up even more of Ukraine’s. In addition, Russia will have to build a new line of defense along the river; the Dnipro alone won’t be an insurmountable obstacle for Ukraine. Additionally, Russia’s new defense line will have to be twice as long as its current one.
- Russia’s logistical bases in the rear will now be within reach of Ukrainian artillery and multiple rocket launchers.
- If all of Russia’s forces flee from the Dnipro’s right bank, the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in Nova Kakhovka will come under Ukrainian control. It’s not clear whether Russia’s military command currently has a plan for defending the dam, and bombing it out of commission would risk flooding the settlements on the Dnipro’s still-occupied left bank.
Could Russia’s retreat announcement be a ruse?
After the evacuation of civilians from Kherson, Russia could theoretically scale its bridgehead down to “fortresses” in Kherson and the city of Beryslav (across the Dnipro from Nova Kakhovka).
This would partially solve the Russian army’s supply difficulties, and would allow Russia to maintain defenses several kilometers out from the river on the right bank. It would also solve the Kremlin’s main political problem: explaining why a “Russian” regional capital had to be surrendered. Russian-backed Kherson occupation administration head Vladimir Saldo has mentioned the possibility of Kherson becoming a “fortress.”
But from a military perspective, this approach would bring its own difficulties: supplying Russian forces across a river while under Ukrainian artillery fire would be a challenge, if not impossible. Until this point, Russia’s military command has preferred to completely evacuate from areas that can’t be reliably supplied — such as Kyiv in the spring, Snake Island in the summer, and the Kharkiv region in September — rather than fighting from besieged “fortresses.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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