Reading tea leaves: Retreat from Kherson & the Wagner Line

October 22, 2022

Today’s ISW update has one interesting bit that might require reassessment in light of the latest “belief revision” that I wrote about recently.

The update is generally sound, as usual. I am not saying this because I agree with it, which I do — I wrote about almost all of it yesterday and the day before, and came to very similar conclusions. (British intel only told us about the pontoon bridge today, several days after Telegram channels noted it, and one day before it was confirmed by these sources. Obviously, they are not going to tell us what they know immediately, if ever, but that just underscores the point that official releases often trail events by days, sometimes multiple days, making it hard to track what goes on through them as events often overrun the announcements.)

Anyway, I have two things to say about this assessment.

First, I think ISW is overstating the likelihood that Russia will cut and run in Kherson. It’s such a juicy target symbolically that Putin would probably do everything he can to keep it. On top of that, it would be a significant tactical setback to his dreams of taking the Black Sea coast: any possible advance on Odesa would have to involve crossing the Dnipro River (again), but this time under heavy fire. Keeping even some platzdarm there (e.g., the city of Kherson itself) would solve both problems for him.

The issue with that, of course, is that if the Russians lose control of the crossing at Novaya Kakhovka, then everything would have to go by the pontoon bridge. But if ZSU get anywhere near Kherson, then all such contraptions will come within artillery range and would not last long. This suggests that the Russians really would have to hold ZSU sufficiently far from them.

The question right now is whether they can, not whether they will attempt to or not. Leaving without a “heroic defense” and without a plausible excuse (the Ukronazis blew up the dam) would play very badly on Russian TV, which might be more of a problem for Putin than the tactical defeat.

I have heard Ukrainian experts say that Russia would never dare blow up the dam, for two reasons. First, since this would empty the reservoir, the water supply to Crimea would stop (there is no pump to compensate for the lower water levels). Second, it would inundate a lot of the left bank as well, and this is where the Russian forces are. If they were to attempt to withdraw south, the Ukrainians could pursue them, turning the retreat into a rout.

Neither of these work.

The answer to the first argument is simple: Crimea did not get water from Ukraine through this channel for 8 years (the Ukrainians blocked it after Russia illegally annexed the peninsula). It survived (not well, but survived). It can surely do so now as well. Moreover, since this will be portrayed as a terrorist act by Ukraine, Moscow is going to lean on propaganda to use the water shortage as another example of how evil the Kyiv regime is, even to people it claims to be Ukrainians, and territory it supposedly wants to liberate.

The second assumes things not in evidence. I believe that the Russian command is totally capable of flooding the area even if some of its own troops are there. (The Ukrainian terrorist act story would look very fishy even to an uncritical eye if somehow all Russian troops were evacuated before the event.) The situation with the p-mobs they are sending to the right bank is clear: they are cannon fodder anyway, so nobody in Moscow is going to bat an eye about their loss. The better units being evacuated to the left bank right now are another story, and I do think they will save most, if not all of them, before doing anything with the dam. For the ZSU to pursue them across the river would require ZSU to be close enough to the crossing at the time of withdrawal but before the dam is blown up (this would cut their access to the left bank). This strikes me as very unlikely given the Russian resistance there. In other words, if Surovikin and his boss decide to blow up the dam, this is not going to stop them.

The second thing about this assessment has to do with Prigozhin, who’s been building an anti-tank defense line similar to Germany’s “dragon teeth” of the Siegfried Line. The construction of this “Wagner Line” is in Belgorod Oblast and Luhansk, and the location has caused some serious friction with local authorities while also being out of tune with the Kremlin’s stated positions. This leads ISW to infer that Prigozhin (and the “war party”) are involved in “creating rifts within the Russian government.”

In light of my revision of beliefs about Prigozhin, this is highly unlikely. If the Wagner Group is part of the Ministry of Defense, then this policy reflects what the military wants, rather than what the “war party” that’s been publicly heaping scorn on the military wants. Recall that it was the military that seems to have imposed on Putin the reduction in war aims that resulted in the “gesture of goodwill” when they left the territories in the north and suddenly announced that the liberation of Donbas was the principal aim. With the annexations, Putin seems to have gotten the upper hand yet again, but now the construction of defense lines seems to belie that.

The Wagner Line is being built in Belgorod Oblast (on Russian territory), which suggests a defensive position against a non-existent Ukrainian invasion. There has been criticism of the Kremlin that the local population is not being defended, and so this might simply be the answer to that. Prigozhin is blaming all sorts of bureaucrats for hindering his work, but I can’t see how he’d be building anything anywhere without approval from his masters.

The location of the other part of the defense line since it has not been built yet. Some sources claim that it would not protect Luhansk, which would indeed be odd. Yet other sources claim that it would, but that it would only cover the pre-invasion territory. ISW speculates that if it’s the latter, then it is probably because this is what appears defensible. This might be so, but it also might be that perhaps this is what the military believes it can realistically hold and still allow negotiations to begin.

Now, it may be the case that I am projecting my own thinking about this, but I believe it’s reasonable to suppose that negotiations between Ukraine and Russia could begin when ZSU liberate the territories the Russians conquered since the start of the invasion. (This assumes that the Kremlin regime has not collapsed even if Putin is gone.) This does not mean that Russia gets to keep these territories — all will depend on the political situation and the military balance at the time of these negotiations. For this to work, however, the Russians would have to be able to hold out on these territories, hence the line.

Whatever the reasoning — and we will know more as soon as they start extending the defense line — I do not believe that Prigozhin is creating any rifts in the Kremlin. I also do not believe that Putin is being pushed by some “uberhawks”. I happen to think that he is an arch uber-hawk himself, and that the only really restraining force on him are some level-headed assessments that sometimes, but only sometimes, the military is able to get through to him.

4 thoughts on “Reading tea leaves: Retreat from Kherson & the Wagner Line

  1. “Platzdarm” was fun – “exploding intestines” in German. Non-obviously French: ‘place d’armes’ (parade ground). But in Russian+Ukrainian: bridgehead, foothold, staging base. Makes my inner linguist smile: Strafe, Schlagbaum, Maßstab, Marschroute, Butterbrot. Bracconiere. Vauxhall.
    That “Wagner-Linie” sounds fine, maybe too good to be true. Would Wagner/MD really be hindered by Russian bureaucracy/”врагов-бюрократов”?

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    1. Hahaha! Should’ve been platsdarm in English but, oh well, the error is too much fun to correct, so I’ll leave it be. Problem is that we have the same word in Bulgarian, so i never checked spelling in English. As to Wagner Line, I’m sure that’s what enemies are calling it, just because it sounds German. and no, no “bureaucracy” can hinder it directly. although i wouldn’t be surprised if the concrete dragon teeth turn out to be painted styrofoam.

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  2. Most of Kherson is on a hill, so it makes little sense to flood it. But to detonate a dirty (nuclear) bomb there after the withdrawal of the troops, this can have the right effect on the public, which is told on TV that Ukrainian children should be drowned, burned and shot. What a wonderful neighbor Ukraine has…

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  3. In my opinion, the dude with the beard was in shock himself. By the way, the director of this channel suggests doing this.

    People there are really sick… This is fascism.

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