Russia’s announced withdrawal from Kherson has initiated a new phase of the war. Out of it come several considerations. Operationally, Ukraine has an opportunity to press retreating Russian forces and destroy them. Strategically, Ukraine must now consider its next offensive steps. And politically, the US and its allies cannot mistake temporary success for long-term strategic stability. Fundamentally, the war’s military factors still militate against a political resolution. If Ukraine is to negotiate a peace favorable to it and the West, the war must continue to a strategic equilibrium.
The Paradoxes of War
Russia’s retreat from Kherson is the greatest Ukrainian victory thus far of the war. It demonstrates the long-term viability of Ukraine’s anti-logistical strategy of corrosion. The terrain and unit frontage in Kherson Oblast made major frontal assaults extremely costly. Hence Ukraine, just as it did in the Donbas, targeted Russian logistics, employing long-range rocket artillery to degrade Russian supply depots far behind the front line, and to hit the bridges over the Dnieper so vital to Russian sustainment.
Yet war is paradoxical. Russia’s withdrawal may improve Moscow’s position in the medium-term.
Losing Kherson is a political-military defeat. The city is Kherson Oblast’s namesake and seat of government. Russia annexed Kherson Oblast just over a month ago, ostensibly with Kherson as its administrative center. Thus, Russia’s impending retreat from Kherson is a far greater blow to Putin’s credibility than its defeat at Lyman just days after Donetsk Oblast was annexed. Moreover, Kherson links to Russia’s long-term strategic motivations. Kherson city is a major Ukrainian port, and a vital transit point for goods farther up the Dnieper bound for the Black Sea. Controlling the city would increase Russia’s stranglehold on Ukrainian trade, even in peacetime.
More critically, Kherson Oblast holds the key to Crimea. Specifically, the smaller city of Nova Kakhovka, some 60 kilometers upriver from Kherson, marks the southern end of the Kakhovka Reservoir, the artificial body of water that provides the North Crimea Canal the water the Crimean Peninsula so desperately needs. Since 2014, Ukraine has cut off Crimea’s water supply, destroying annual crop yields in the Russian-annexed territory. Holding Kherson Oblast, and specifically holding a buffer on the Dnieper’s far bank that secured the Crimea Canal, was as central a political-strategic objective for Russia as the creation of a Donbas-to-Crimea land corridor. Hence the Russian retreat marks an abject failure to achieve one of Russia’s major war aims.
Additionally, absent its Kherson bridgehead, Russia will struggle to launch future offensives. The Dnieper is extremely wide and therefore defensible. Russia crossed the Dnieper in the war’s opening days because of good intelligence preparation – Kherson residents have claimed that Ukrainian soldiers and police officers left the city just before the invasion, potentially on the orders of a collaborator in the Ukrainian Security Services. Russia will have no similar benefits if it seeks to cross the Dnieper a second time. Given Russia’s extremely limited amphibious capabilities, Odesa is now safe from attack, and Putin’s dream of Novorossiya, and complete territorial dominance over the southern Ukrainian coastline, is now dead.
A new offensive from Belarus is possible, but not for some months considering weather conditions and the terrain. And the Ukrainian military has fortified Russia’s most likely Belarusian invasion paths, meaning a second northern offensive would probably mirror Russia’s efforts in March, culminating in a withdrawal, high casualties, and no material gains. Ukrainian defenses in the east, combined with Ukraine’s recent gains decrease the viability of a Donbas Offensive that will, even if successful, push far beyond the Bakhmut-Siversk line that Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group repeated assaults. An offensive from Mariupol or Melitopol towards Zaporizhzhia is possible. But Ukraine looks to have placed some of its best units along this line, including a high concentration of artillery, making any Russian attack costly and vulnerable to a Ukrainian counterstroke. Observers are likely to look back at Kherson, therefore, as the high-water mark of the Russian invasion.
Read the rest at RealClear Defense.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of the Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is author of “Mayday” and “Seablindness.”