Russian President Vladimir Putin is loath to give up the city of Kherson, and his reluctance to order a withdrawal defies military logic and could lead to the loss of many of Russia’s best troops. On Oct. 4, the Russian parliament unanimously ratified the illegal annexation of Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions even as Russian forces were falling back in these areas.
Kherson was the first and only Ukrainian provincial capital to be taken by Russian forces. The city fell on March 2 just over a week after Russia launched its full-scale invasion.
For several months, Ukraine has been using HIMARS missiles and other long-range weaponry to degrade Russian forces in the Kherson region. The attacks have taken out bridges, command and control centers, ammo dumps, and troop concentrations. Now as Ukraine mounts its long-awaited counteroffensive, Russian forces are being pushed into an untenable position with their backs to the Dnipro River. With the bridges over the Dnipro heavily damaged, Russia is having difficulty resupplying its troops in Kherson.
Military experts interviewed by Igor Kossov of the Kyiv Independent say the logical strategic move would be for Russian forces to withdraw from Kherson city and set up a new defensive line on the eastern side of the Dnipro. But Putin has said “nyet” to any strategic retreat.
The Kyiv Independent wrote that abandoning Kherson city would be “humiliating” for Putin because “withdrawing from the city that the Kremlin has just proclaimed Russian would undermine the whole annexation effort.” Here’s what some military analysts told the Kyiv Independent:
“If they were smart, they’d pull back to the east bank of the Dnipro,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St. Andrew’s University in the U.K. “They’re stuck on the west bank, they’re having real trouble getting supplies across. So they’re trying to maintain a modern army with very weak supply lines.”
“It’s a turkey shoot of the Russians,” he added. [...]
Serhii Kuzan, co-founder of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center, told the NV media outlet that Russians were clinging to the western bank "against military logic."
The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), an independent investigative project that originated in Russia, told the Kyiv Independent that trying to hold Kherson would be a major drain on Russian resources. It also ties up some of Russia’s best soldiers at a time when they are desperately needed elsewhere, for example in Luhansk Oblast where Ukrainian forces are advancing.
In a strategic masterstroke, Ukraine convinced Russia that its main counteroffensive would be launched in the southern Kherson region. As a result, Russia rushed elite airborne divisions and fresh soldiers from the Eastern Military district to Kherson, according to the CIT. Instead, Ukraine successfully struck in the northern Kharkiv region where defenses were weaker, while waging a war of attrition in the Kherson area.
O’Brien told the Kyiv Independent that Russian forces in Kherson will eventually degrade so much that they will be forced to pull back across the Dnipro, whether under orders or otherwise.
“The Ukrainians are trying to degrade Russian forces, that’s their number one goal,” he said. “The more they degrade, the more open areas they’re gonna find in other places. Ukrainians will probably be happy if the Russians stand and fight.”
On Wednesday, in his nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that since Oct. 1, Ukrainian forces have already liberated more than 500 square kilometers of territory and dozens of settlements in the Kherson region. Ukraine has enjoyed success in the war because Zelenskyy has deferred to his military commanders when it comes to strategic decision-making. But Putin thinks he can dictate strategy himself to meet his political goals, ignoring any reservations of his commanders, which could lead to a disastrous collapse and “turkey shoot” in Kherson.