Ukraine’s victory in Kherson Oblast has confirmed the centrality of sea access in the war with Russia. As Ukraine plans its next move, and Russia responds to Ukraine’s advances, Western policymakers must prioritize Ukraine’s victory at sea, and ensure that Kyiv has the tools it requires to break Russian sea control. Like World War II’s struggle for the continent the Ukraine War may be fought on land, but it can be won at sea.
The Russian retreat from Kherson demonstrates the effectiveness of Ukraine’s operational approach. Ukrainian troops never conquered Kherson, replicating the vicious urban assaults that have defined the Russian invasion. They instead played to their strengths, patiently eroding Russia’s position with long-range artillery strikes against supply depots and logistical hubs. This strategy won the Battle of the Donbas, halting the apparently overwhelming Russian onslaught at Severodonetsk/Lysychansk. It also ultimately won the Kherson Offensive. In both cases, Russian forces became too degraded to undertake effective offensives.
Unlike in the Donbas, however, Ukraine could present Russia with an operational dilemma. Right-bank Kherson Oblast held political and strategic importance, as the key to the Crimea Canal, the area in which a newly annexed Russian Oblast’s ostensible capital was and is still located, and as the most viable staging point for new offensives. But maintaining a stable position in Kherson required around 20,000 soldiers at any given time, complete with heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and the requisite ammunition and supplies to fight, even from static lines.
Ukraine’s anti-logistical efforts made right-bank Kherson logistically untenable: it was a strategic deadweight on Russia’s broader position, sucking up valuable resources and men who could hold the line elsewhere. It also put Russia with its back to the Dnieper, an extremely wide river, rather than leveraging the Dnieper as a defensive barrier. Ultimately, Russian commander Sergei Surovikin placed tangible military considerations above the political imperative to hold Kherson, withdrawing from the city.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson has improved operational position. It remains to be seen whether the damage Ukraine did to withdrawing Russian units will limit the combat power Surovikin can harvest from the retreat, although it appears that a significant amount of Russian equipment made it across the Dnieper. Yet Russian forces now have the Dnieper before them. Crossing the river will be extraordinarily difficult for Ukraine – this fact shaped Ukraine’s anti-logistical strategy in the first place – and even if viable, an extremely risky proposition for a military with a handful of high-value maneuver brigades. Hence Russia need not defend left-bank Kherson Oblast from a Ukrainian offensive very heavily, at least not soon.
Indeed, Russia’s withdrawal simplifies the strategic choices Surovikin must make. Offensive operations are no longer viable. But the defensive front line is now shorter in practical terms. Mobilized Russian infantry may be useless for maneuver but remain capable of defending static lines with artillery and air support. With a shorter front and more conscripts to employ, Surovikin can peel off actual trained line units, creating an operational reserve to counter a Ukrainian mechanized offensive.
Ukraine will continue to press on land, and likely should launch an offensive between early winter and mid-spring, taking advantage of Russia’s low morale, need to redeploy east, and inability to bring its nominal 300,000 new troops rapidly into the fight.
Nevertheless, looking for other offensive axes would be fruitful. Ukraine has only a single strategically consequential offensive path. The Svatove Line in the Donbas remains under pressure, and Ukraine may very well break that. But even if Ukraine does, and Russia retreats to the pre-February 24th Line of Contact in the Donbas’ north, the war’s strategic fundamentals will not have changed. Driving Russia from all the Donbas, meanwhile, involves a southern-directed offensive anyway. By contrast, considering the difficulty of a Kherson Oblast offensive, an attack in Zaporizhzhia Oblast is eminently viable and strategically relevant. It would threaten all Russian forces in southern Ukraine, thereby giving Kyiv an opportunity to reclaim the south, secure Ukrainian ports, and ensure post-war Ukraine’s economic future.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.