Nov 15, 2022 - World

Ukraine celebrates Russia's Kherson retreat and prepares for winter warfare

Zelensky on Monday morning in Kherson. Photo: Ukrainian Army/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, flanked by soldiers, sang the national anthem in central Kherson Monday as a Ukrainian flag was raised over the city — the only regional capital that had fallen to Russia since February's invasion.

Why it matters: The Russian surrender of Kherson is the culmination of a four-month Ukrainian counteroffensive, and a major blow to Russian President Putin, who just weeks earlier had declared Kherson an integral part of Russia "forever." Kherson's liberation comes as winter sets in and officials in Kyiv, Moscow and Washington prepare for the next phase of the war.

  • "The price of this victory" in Kherson is "very high" in terms of casualties, but it marked “the beginning of the end of the war," Zelensky contended on Monday.
  • Zelensky's appearance in Kherson — and the celebratory scenes as residents emerged from eight months of occupation — have been broadcast around the world as leaders gather for a G20 summit at which there is one notable absentee: Putin.
  • Putin's spokesperson insisted on Monday that Kherson "is part of the Russian Federation" — a claim that hardly makes losing the city easier to swallow.

On the one hand: The retreat was a major blow for the Kremlin, puts Ukrainian forces close to or within artillery range of parts of occupied Crimea, and takes Russia's broader objective of controlling Ukraine's entire coastline off the table, at least for the time being, says Dara Massicot, a Russia analyst at the Rand Corporation.

On the other: Russia is pummeling Ukraine's energy infrastructure as the weather turns cold, and it will reinforce its lines over the winter with the estimated 300,000 conscripts it called up this fall.

  • Having pulled out of Kherson, Moscow's strategy "now seems to be to extend the war," says Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia's military at CNA.

State of play: President Biden has said the fall of Kherson and the arrival of winter will give both sides a chance to "lick their wounds" and decide whether to "compromise."

  • His top general, Mark Milley, went a step further by saying winter could present a window for peace talks. Others in the administration continue to emphasize the need to help Ukraine to keep the pressure on militarily.

Zelensky made clear that Ukraine has no intentions of pressing pause.

  • Despite heavy losses in the push on Kherson, Ukraine's forces are highly motivated and intent on targeting Russia's weak units, as in the recent Kharkiv offensive, or weak positions, as in Kherson, says Massicot.
  • Winter weather will likely limit the scope of such operations for now.

The other side: "Russia's strategy is to entrench, try to defend over the next several months, and focus on rebuilding its forces to see if they can restore offensive potential in the spring," Kofman says. He's skeptical that will be possible any time soon.

  • Penned in by the broad Dnieper River after advancing Ukrainian forces destroyed all bridges into Kherson but one, Russian forces faced two options: "controlled retreat or catastrophic encirclement," says Massicot.
  • Putin left it to his defense minister and top military commander to explain the retreat last week. Kremlin-aligned pundits have portrayed the move as a temporary necessity to save Russian lives, but frustration has crept into the state TV commentary, and some nationalist bloggers are fuming.
  • Having abandoned Kherson, Russia's forces are taking up defensive positions on the east bank of the Dnieper.

What to watch: The next phase of the war could hinge on Russia's success in integrating its new conscripts.

  • "Russia's front line just consolidated because they left Kherson, and at the same time, they're adding additional personnel. So if they use them appropriately, which is a big if, they can create multiple defensive lines and really dig in over the winter," Massicot says.
  • But thus far conscription has appeared "chaotic," and many of the conscripts are likely to be ill-trained, ill-equipped and unmotivated, she adds.
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