Russian troops and the puppet authorities deployed by Putin have left the Ukrainian city of Kherson. But the withdrawal does not mean that the Russians have given up the gateway to Crimea. Instead, Ukrainian secret services sense a tactical maneuver.
Even the statues are leaving the city. For decades, the stone and bronze busts of Fyodor Ushakov and Alexander Suvorov, two Russian generals, stood guard over the center of Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine. At the end of October they disappeared under cover of darkness, probably kidnapped by Russian troops who have occupied the city since March.
The living are also getting up and away. The puppet authorities deployed by the Russians are taking thousands of the city’s remaining residents across the Dnieper River deeper into Russian-held territory. Some Russian officers follow at their heels. They do not carry light luggage with them. According to Ukrainian authorities, cash was stolen from the vaults of Promsvyazbank, the city’s largest Russian bank. Looting is the order of the day.
Months of Ukraine’s artillery barrages appear to have finally paved the way for advances into the surrounding Kherson province. Since early October, Ukrainian forces have breached Russian defenses in the north-east of the province and recaptured more than 500 square kilometers of land.
However, the evacuation of the city and the withdrawal of some troops does not mean that Russia will abandon the city. The advancing Ukrainian troops want to avoid fighting inside the city, lest the city be reduced to rubble. But maybe they have no other choice.
Kherson is the gateway to Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014. In September, a month after Ukraine launched its counter-offensive in the south, the Russians officially annexed Kherson province and three others: Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhia. Heavy Ukrainian shelling and the use of American HIMARS artillery systems, which can hit targets far behind enemy lines, destroyed Russian bases and supply routes, as well as bridges across the Dnieper.
But that didn’t weaken the Russian defenses as much as hoped. “We thought they would try to move their bases far away to save their officers and tanks,” says Volodymyr Omelyan, an army captain and former government minister who recently returned from the Kherson front. “But once we’ve destroyed a base, they bring in more people and we’ll strike again.” According to Omelyan, Russian officers will indeed be transferred back to the east bank of the river, but replaced by rank and file troops, including new conscripts.
According to a Ukrainian intelligence source, the Russians are withdrawing their most capable troops in order to regroup them into new units ready to launch an offensive early next year. The defense of the Russian positions is essentially left to newly formed troops. At least for the moment the Russians are not retreating but regrouping.
Russia cannot afford to cede the west bank of the Dnieper to the Ukrainians, says military expert Oleg Zhdanov. “Defenses towards Zaporizhia would collapse. They would lose the nuclear power plant, the North Crimean Canal, which is Crimea’s water supply, and the land corridor to Crimea,” he explains. However, the Russians are well aware that the momentum is on the Ukraine side.
Meanwhile, Russia has begun to point to the danger of using a dirty bomb or an attack on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, and blaming Ukrainians for it. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, claims that Russia is planning to blow up the Nova Kakhovka dam upstream from Kherson. The resulting flooding would prevent Ukrainian troops from pursuing the Russians across the Dnieper. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people would be displaced.
Russia’s warnings are directly related to the situation in Kherson. Uhdanoy says Vladimir Putin hopes to put pressure on Ukraine and its Western partners to bring about negotiations and a ceasefire. “Putin must stop the Ukrainian forces at all costs,” he explains, “because he is aware that his army cannot hold the conquered territories.”
Ukrainians are unlikely to respond to this blackmail. Putin and his generals could soon be faced with difficult decisions in Cherson.
The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “Russia braces for a battle over Kherson” and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.