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Russia’s planned Kherson retreat a double-edged sword for Kyiv

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed his nation after Russia said it planned to withdraw its forces from the west bank of the River Dnipro in southern Ukraine he betrayed few signs of relief.

November 11, 2022
By Andrew Osborn
11 November 2022

By Andrew Osborn

LONDON, Nov 10 (Reuters) – When Ukrainian President
Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed his nation after Russia said it
planned to withdraw its forces from the west bank of the River
Dnipro in southern Ukraine he betrayed few signs of relief.

Besides suspecting that Russia may be laying a trap for his
forces, his downbeat demeanour on Wednesday evening may reflect
what Western military and diplomatic sources say looks like a
bittersweet moment for Kyiv.

If it happens, the planned retreat could make life easier
for the Russian army, in some respects, and harder for Ukraine.

“On the one hand, this is obviously a Ukrainian victory and
a sign of big weakness on Russia’s part,” said Konrad Muzyka, a
Polish military analyst who recently returned from Ukraine.

The withdrawal would bring Ukrainian forces closer to
Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014 and
which Kyiv says it aims to retake, and would appear to end
Russian dreams of extending a contiguous land corridor westward
to other Ukrainian coastal cities or to Moldova.

But Muzyka said falling back was also the only right
military decision for Russia to take because its forces on the
western side of the Dnipro were too exposed, over-stretched and
under-supplied, a position he called unsustainable.

“If the Russians withdraw now, not only will they have more
forces to prepare the defences of the eastern bank of the river,
but they will also have some forces to actually move around and
deploy to other areas (of Ukraine),” he said, saying it could
take weeks for Moscow to complete its withdrawal.

Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, noted
what he called an element of “realism” in Russia’s strategy
following the appointment last month of a new overall Russian
commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin.

“It’s definitely a turning point, but it doesn’t mean that
Russia has lost or that Ukraine has won,” said Barry, who said
Moscow was still capable of taking the initiative if it could
regroup for a fresh offensive or mount decisive counterattacks.

“It is far too soon to write them off.”


The choreographed and blunt way that Russia announced its
plans to retreat contrasted sharply with the way it presented
its two big earlier reversals – its flight from Kyiv in March
and from the Kharkiv region in the north-east in September.

Back then, the defence ministry spoke of “goodwill gestures”
and of tactical “regroupings” after its forces had been beaten

This time, the announcement was made on state TV by a
depressed-looking Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, and the
plain-speaking Surovikin, and while Russia still held the
territory it said it planned to cede, albeit under pressure.

Both men publicly accepted that Russia’s position in Kherson
had become untenable.

President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s commander-in-chief, was
conspicuous by his absence, a move that some analysts said was
designed to distance him from a difficult decision that the
Kremlin had decided the military should own.

Regardless of any potential military upside, retreat would
represent a humiliating defeat for Russia’s political and
military leadership.

The withdrawal, the latest sign that what Moscow calls its
“Special Military Operation” is faltering badly, would mean
handing back the city of Kherson, founded during the Russian
Empire era by Empress Catherine the Great.

Kherson is the first and only regional capital Moscow’s
forces have captured, at great cost, since their Feb. 24
invasion. Not long ago it was plastered with billboards
proclaiming it would be with Russia forever after Putin
announced he had annexed Kherson and three other regions.


Getting its troops – estimated to number some 30,000 men –
back to the eastern bank of the Dnipro will not be easy for
Russia either, given Ukraine has damaged or destroyed all the
bridges across it, forcing Moscow to rely on night-time ferries
in range of Ukrainian rockets.

For now, it’s unclear how and when Russia will conduct any
fall back and what price it will try to extract in the process
from Ukraine, which fears retaking a booby-trapped city and the
possible blowing up of a dam on the Dnipro.

But if Russian forces do make it to the eastern bank largely
intact with some of their hardware, they would be able to use
the natural barrier of the river to dig in on a side, where they
have already dug trenches, while keeping the city of Kherson in
range of their own artillery.

The dearth of any safe working bridges able to transport
military hardware would then become Ukraine’s problem.

Muzyka and Barry both said that falling back to the eastern
side of the Dnipro would allow Russia to shorten the frontline
it has to defend and to free up more troops.

Anthony Brenton, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, said
Russia had prepared the ground for an eventual retreat from the
Dnipro’s west bank for some time and that it clearly hoped to
buy time to try to regroup over the winter.

“It’s a rational thing to do as Kherson was no longer
defensible. The Russians are still gambling on getting
themselves together militarily” by the end of the winter, he

Despite all their setbacks, Brenton said he thought the
Russians still hoped to hang on to Crimea – which he said Moscow
cared about most – along with the land corridor they have carved
out connecting it with Russia and continued access to Ukrainian
water needed for Crimea, plus as much as the Donbas part of
eastern Ukraine “as they could grab”.

“I suspect that at the top they would quite like an outcome
that leaves them roughly where they are, which they’re not going
to get,” said Brenton, who said he believed the Russians
understood that they would ultimately need to strike a deal even
if such a prospect seemed remote for now.

(Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Alex

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