The liberation of Kherson by Ukrainian forces on November 11 was both predictable and surprising.
The strategic imperative for withdrawing Russian troops from the indefensible position along the west side of the Dnipro River had been abundantly clear long before the “difficult decision” presented by the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergey Surovikin, to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on November 9.
Personal responsibility for failure
That rare acceptance of personal responsibility for a major failure was staged so awkwardly in front of television cameras that few international observes or Ukrainian experts were inclined to take the performance at face value (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 10).
The extremely difficult prospect of completing the retreat amid active fighting was, nevertheless, accomplished in the matter of a couple days without a rout or desperate rush to the few crowded river crossings, which inevitably invited speculations about Ukrainian units’ reluctance to enforce a decisive battle (The Bell, November 10).
It is indeed inconceivable that the usually sharp Ukrainian intelligence, with its new skills in processing data from multiple drone and satellite assets, could have missed the movement of some 25,000 enemy troops, which had certainly started a number of days prior to Shoigu’s performance (Currenttime.tv, November 11).
In truth, the victory of expelling Russian forces from Kherson, the only Ukrainian regional capital the Russian military has managed to capture since February 24, is so strategically significant that there was no need to dramatize the liberation further with fierce street fighting (The Bell, November 10). Furthermore, Russian battalions are so degraded and demoralized that they cannot be used for reinforcing the exhausted offensive push toward Bakhmut in Donbas. Meanwhile, the highly motivated Ukrainian units can be quickly redeployed for sustaining the momentum of breaking through multiple weak points in Russia’s defensive lines (Grani.ru, November 10).
Public declaration of intent to withdraw
The quite unusual public declaration of intent to withdraw from the fortified positions around Kherson was supposed to serve as Moscow’s invitation to Kyiv to pause the high-intensity operations and perhaps even proceed to a de facto ceasefire (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 8).
In the Kremlin’s calculations, Ukraine can be satisfied with the disappearance of Russia’s strategic bridgehead, from which a new offensive toward Mykolaiv and Odesa could have been launched early next year, and now, Russian forces will not be able to plan a large-scale winter campaign in Donbas (Svobodnaya pressa, November 11).
Yet, what these assumptions fail to account for is the firm resolution in Ukrainian society to keep inflicting defeats on the aggressor, which translates into a rejuvenated fighting spirit among the Ukrainian forces, something unimaginable for the Russian top brass on their side (Kommersant, November 12).
It is becoming perfectly clear to Ukraine that Russia needs a pause for rebuilding its beaten battalions and turning the hastily mobilized recruits into something resembling combat units — and Kyiv has no intention of granting the enemy such a timeout (Republic.ru, November 11).
From a hypothetical ceasefire to substantial peace talks
What is also plainly clear for the Ukrainian leadership is that a hypothetical ceasefire will not lead to substantial peace talks, because by proceeding with the constitutionally confirmed annexation of four regions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has effectively burned all bridges to territorial compromises, creating an irreconcilable conflict (RBC, November 12).
The self-defeating recoil from that pompously celebrated act has aggravated the strategic setback of the fall of Kherson, which amounts to a severe breach of Russia’s redefined territorial integrity (The Moscow Times, November 11).
The relatively smooth execution of the retreat only makes this contrast sharper, as in Moscow’s doctrinal terms, territorial integrity is sacrosanct and must be upheld by all available means and at any cost.
Downplaying a political disaster
The Kremlin has tried to downplay this self-made political disaster, and the official media, particularly the state-controlled television channels, mention Kherson only elliptically (Meduza, November 11). Most of the noisy “patriotic” bloggers, who in September 2022 loudly decried the defeats at Izyum and Liman, are now being properly kept in line and singing praises to General Surovikin, who took responsibility for drafting and directing the Russian retreat from the brink of a rout (Novayagazeta.eu, November 11).
Yet, the shock of an undeniable defeat is painful for the apologists of war, and this was exposed by Aleksandr Dugin, a proponent of the Russian nationalistic brand of geopolitics, whom Putin respectfully referred to as “our philosopher” (Meduza, November 3).
Lamenting Kherson as an unacceptable loss, Dugin has asserted that, in an autocratic state such as Russia, the burden of responsibility rests at the top, and the failure to accept this renders the autocrat in question useless and expendable (Tsargrad.tv, November 11). Few among the Russian elites are ready to subscribe to Dugin’s fierce proposition for a total war, but some could perhaps be shaken out of their passive acceptance of the unravelling “special military operation” by such fiery rhetoric (Riddle, November 9).
Putin is acutely aware of the growing understanding among various circles of his subordinates that the poorly executed war will only get worse, and the Russian president can only count on the deep mistrust among various clans of courtiers and their fear of his retribution (Republic.ru, November 10).
He can also assume that anxieties among the elites are absolutely detached from the deepening discontent in Russian society, which was shocked by the announcement of mobilization and increasingly traumatized by its messy execution (Forbes.ru, November 11). Putin may only have access to carefully doctored data on public opinion and routinely experience the usual demonstrations of slavish loyalty from his aids and henchmen.
Even so, his instincts warned him that attending the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in person might be a step too far (Russiancouncil.ru, November 11).
The Kremlin found no opening to produce an initiative that could have shifted the domestic political agenda away from the Kherson debacle or to compensate for it by some asymmetric escalation of the ever-changing war.
The Russian military has multiple “hybrid” means of warfare, but every attempt at employing them — from sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines to withdrawing from, then rejoining, the “grain deal” — has brought more damage than gains, without making any real impact on the course of the kinetic war. The best hope for Moscow presently is to show readiness for a cessation of hostilities and to encourage Western proponents of a pseudo-peace agreement, in which Ukraine would be compelled to accept hard faits accomplis.
This new guise for the corrupt policy of appeasement is set to be torn apart by Kyiv’s firm resolve to celebrate the liberation of Kherson as irrefutable proof of the impending defeat of Russia’s brutal aggression.
- Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at PRIO
- This text is also published at Eurasia Daily Monitor