Kherson is one of the strategic regions located between the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and eastern Ukraine. The Russian retreat might mean the end of Moscow’s aim to reach Odessa and further southwest Ukraine.
Over the centuries, the Dnieper River was part of an ancient trade route running between the Mediterranean and the Baltic seas and also considered a natural barrier between old Russia and the West. In modern times, the river divides western Ukraine from its eastern part, which has been heavily populated by Russians.
No wonder then that crossing the river – which flows through Ukrainian territories before flowing into the Black Sea in the Kherson region – held more than a symbolic meaning for Russian forces.
For some Russian hardliners, the Dnieper crossing also meant keeping alive the dreams of recreating the old Russia of the Tsarist days – considered the golden period of the country.
But in recent days, Russian forces have appeared to be slowly retreating from their positions in Kherson city centre, located on the west bank of the river in Kherson, forcing military analysts into a guessing game about Russia’s real intentions. Kherson, a strategic region, forms a land bridge between the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and the Russian mainland.
There were reports on Friday that Ukrainian forces entered the city centre.
“Looking at the current tactical operation situation, it does make sense for Russians to regroup in the eastern side of the river where they have more ability to resupply and basically dig in and create more sustainable defensive positions,” says Andreas Krieg, a defence analyst, referring to the Russian withdrawal from Kherson.
Russia’s new military commander Sergei Surovikin, a hardliner known for his aggression throughout his career, ordered the retreat from the regional capital to maintain control over the rest of Kherson.
Having parts of Kherson east of the Dnieper River will still serve Moscow’s strategic aims to keep a land bridge between Crimea and the Russian mainland. But it might also end Russian efforts of linking Crimea to Odessa, a Black Sea port of Ukraine.
Russians realise that in the long run, Kherson city centre would probably come under immense fire and would be “very difficult and costly” for them to hold because it has been almost circled by Ukrainian forces, according to Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defence Studies.
But Kreig believes that it would also be very difficult for Ukrainians to hold on to the city and move further on the eastern bank of the river against Russian defences.
“Russians did not mention the word retreat or withdraw. They are calling it regrouping which it could essentially be. It does not mean Russians will retreat very deep towards the east. They might just dig in the eastern part of the river and create more sustainable defence positions,” Kreig tells TRT World.
Kreig does not think that Russian withdrawal from Kherson could be a tactical retreat because it would be difficult for them to ever come back to the western part of the Kherson region under current circumstances.
Even in Moscow, some powerful Russians like Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who leads the Wagner mercenary group, appear to recognise that the Kherson retreat can not be portrayed as “a victorious step” for Russia. To explain the retreat, he pointed out that “it is important not to agonise, not to fight in a state of paranoia, but to draw conclusions and work on mistakes”.
Abdullah Agar, a Turkish military analyst, sees the Kherson retreat as a Russian effort “to strike a balancing act between not losing soldiers and not losing the war along with further land losses and facing logistical risks,” referring to reports which suggested that Russians have dug trenches on the west bank of the river.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has worked hard to mediate a peace deal between Kiev and Moscow since the beginning of the conflict in February, found the Russian retreat both “positive and important”, seeing it as an opportunity to restart peace talks.
Agar believes that if the Russians are really retreating from Kherson, that will lead to some serious consequences for Moscow. As a result, he doubts the extent of the Kherson retreat.
“The Russian withdrawal claims from Kherson do not match the political claims the Russians have made so far. The retreat order also does not match with Putin’s political stances,” Agar tells TRT World. “When Russia annexed Ukrainian territories weeks ago after illegal referendums, Putin had declared that Kherson will stay as Russian land forever,” he says.
As a result, Agar believes that leaving Kherson without giving a fight would have “political consequences” for Moscow, hurting Putin’s prestige in the Kremlin. Kreig also thinks that from both a strategic and reputation point of view, leaving Kherson is “a massive humiliation” for Russians. Sergei Markov, a former Putin aide, has already defined the Kherson retreat as “the biggest geopolitical defeat for Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union”.
“Russian withdrawal from Kherson also amounts to accepting a military defeat for Moscow,” says Agar. Russia does not call its attack on Ukraine an invasion, defining its offensive as a “special military operation”. During the Russian attack on Ukraine, despite various setbacks, Putin and his commanders also insisted that things are going according to the plan.
Agar also believes that leaving Kherson might demoralise the Russian military, leading to conceding more territory to Ukraine. The Russian retreat order, which was discussed between Surovikin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu during a phone conversation on Wednesday, was leaked to the Russian media. Agar finds the leakage a “dubious” act.
As a result, like some Ukrainians, Agar believes that Russian retreat might be a military tactic to lure Ukrainians into a costly urban warfare inside the city centre. “There are reports that the Russian army distributed more than 40,000 soldiers to houses in the city centre,” he says.
The military analyst also recalls the urban warfare in Mariupol, a coastal city, which cost both sides dearly, but at the end, Ukraine was on the losing side as some of its best fighters fell to Russia.
Krieg also believes that it would be “unwise” to recapture the Kherson city “immediately“ for the exhausted Ukrainians, who have been pushing for quite a long time against Russians and making immense territorial gains. They would expose themselves to various risks because the Russians would make Ukrainian progress across the urban centre as hard as possible.
“It’s not something that Ukrainians would probably do very quickly and without hesitation. Ukrainians themselves are exhausted. They don’t want to get involved in an urban warfare kind of situation,” he says.
While Russian retreat from Kherson marks a Ukrainian success, it remains to be seen to what extent Kiev’s progress could be translated to a proper strategic objective and victory for Ukrainians, according to Kreig.
“They are in no rush. Ukrainians are necessarily in no rush,” he adds.