November 10, 2022
Yesterday, the Russian Ministry of Defense staged a bit of performance theater when the commander of the VSRF in Ukraine, General Surovikin, reported to Defense Minister Shoigu — on live TV — that military necessity compels the Russian forces to withdraw from the right bank of the Dnipro River; that is, abandon the area of Kherson on that bank, including the key city of Kherson itself. Shoigu listened to the arguments, looked at the handwaving at the map, and approved the request. Russia would be abandoning the one and only regional capital it had captured since the beginning of this invasion.
This is doubtless a triumph for the Ukrainians, and we should savor it. However, it is not the end of the war, and it might not even be a turning point in the conflict yet. I hate to be pouring cold water on heated expectations, but let us consider some of the realities of this withdrawal.
First, the good news. Many pundits predicted that the loss of Kherson would deal a fatal blow to Putin’s rule, and might even cause a coup from the uberhawks that would remove him from power for so obviously failing to win. These analysts also saw the annexations as a domestic commitment device, meant to ensure that the Kremlin would use any means at its disposal — up to and including nuclear weapons — to defend “Russian” territory. In fact, Putin was so cornered by his actions and rhetoric that he would be unable to extricate the Russian forces in Kherson even if they are threatened with annihilation. (Hence, the nukes.)
I have argued against this line of reasoning for a while, so I am not going to rehash it. Suffice it to note that the domestic situation, whatever it is, does not seem to have prevented Putin from making the eminently rational decision to save the Russian forces on the right bank — well, at least some of them (more on that later). For sure, the Russian warcors (war correspondents) immediately cried foul on their Telegram channels, and bemoaned the loss of this “Russian” city. Some suggested treason at the highest level, others blamed overall ineptitude, and yet others just wanted to nuke everything in sight. The tune, however, quickly changed, in sync with the new talking points that were distributed to the mainstream state propaganda outlets. The story now is… of a masterful strategic move that shows the great leadership of the new commander Surovikin — who’s not afraid of making the required tough calls — and, by extension, his boss, Shoigu. (Putin, as usual, is blameless in everything.)
The analogy, which would be no surprise to anyone reading my posts since I’ve talked about it before, is Napoleon’s invasion of 1812. Recall that in this war, the Russian armies under the command of General Kutuzov repeatedly fell back from the invading French forces, avoided pitch battles except the famous one at Borodino, and eventually conceded Moscow. Taking the capital, however, did not win the war for Napoleon, and soon his vast army ran out of food and was forced to retreat, harried on its way by Kutuzov. In the end, the battered remnants of the grand army left Russia and although Kutuzov did not live to see the final triumph over Napoleon, the Russian imperial forces would eventually enter Paris as conquerors.
And so, the Russian propaganda outlets scream, Surovikin is our modern day Kutuzov — we have only temporarily left Kherson but will be back, and will doubtless win this war. The strategy is smart because it preserves the Russian troops and civilian life, and all the more courageous because everyone knows how difficult this decision must have been for the Kremlin.
To make the point stick, the Kremlin has silenced the most strident uberhawks and critics of how the war has been fought. These characters, that were fond of calling for nuking London and Paris, have vanished from the airwaves. Instead, the new talking heads are singing the praises of the military. The conflict with the generals — which fed relentless speculation about how Putin will lose power — has been replaced with unquestioning support for the current strategy. In short, the propaganda machine has revved up and is operating at capacity. Even Kadyrov and Prigozhin seem to have fallen mostly silent about this development, suggesting that their attacks on the High Command were never truly independent forays to begin with.
Moreover, in a country rattled by the mobilization — or, more to the point, by the chaotic and inept way it has been conducted — the idea that the High Command is going to preserve the lives of the soldiers would have a calming effect that may well overwhelm any anger at abandoning Kherson. The ready-made answer to “how could we have left so disgracefully?” is “The newly mobilized soldiers need time to train, and we should not expend them wantonly.” That the second part of the answer is a lie — as I will explain below — makes very little difference in an information environment dominated by the Kremlin.
In other words, Putin has made a difficult decision — difficult not because of supposed domestic constraints but because it really imperils his war aims — and has chosen not to resort to nuclear weapons to stave off this defeat. As one could have expected, the Kremlin has been able to spin the story to suit its needs, and mostly neutralize the critics.
Now, the not so great news. While the Russians are withdrawing from the right bank, not all of them seem to be going. The group that began moving first was the one east of the Inhulets River, which experts have been expecting to either fold toward more defensible positions around Kherson city or be evacuated to the left bank. They are crossing the Dnipro over the Kakhovka Dam bridge, and the Ukrainians have mostly left them alone although they might soon start trying to impede their withdrawal (nobody wants to face these units later somewhere else). Today, some of the units that had been concentrated in Kherson city have also began the move — some, but not all. In particular, Rossgvardiya and motorized infantry seem to have received no orders to evacuate, but instead are busy laying mines in and around the city, with the help of newly arrived sapper units. It looks like the Russians are not just going to allow ZSU to enter the city without a fight. There are also persistent rumors that after the withdrawal of the important units, the Russians might still blow up the Kakhovka Dam, which would make it impossible to evacuate the soldiers holed up in Kherson. This would either cause them to fight until they run out of ammo — delaying the Ukrainians for days or weeks — or surrender, which could then be spun into a story about how the Ukrainians are fighting “dirty” (since the Kremlin would attribute the dam breach to them). In either case, the outcome would enable the Kremlin to make the best out of a really bad situation.
The Russians are currently digging defensive lines in the northern area of Crimea because their fortifications on the left bank of the Dnipro are probably not going to survive for very long once ZSU manages to get close enough to cover them with artillery fire. Pundits are again telling stories about how the Russians would make it very costly for ZSU to force the Dnipro there, but I just do not understand why anyone would think that ZSU would do something that dumb. They have plenty of other options to continue the liberation of the left bank without having to do crossing under enemy fire. (Not to mention that they might be able to push the Russians away from the river.)
This brings me to the very interesting recent Russian attack toward Vuhledar. This area of the front had remained quiescent for a long time, even though ZSU had been stockpiling enormous amounts of materiel and men there. The Russians had always claimed that an attack must be coming, so when they initiated it, some portrayed it as a preemptive strike. While this interpretation might have some elements of truth to it, another one strongly suggests that it is not the whole story.
The issue is the Crimean Bridge, or, rather, it is the damage from the bombing of the bridge. We now know that it was far more extensive than originally thought, and that the Russians will be unlikely to repair it until mid to late spring. Their ability to supply the front lines through Crimea has been severely compromised because of their reliance on rail. They had stocked up so much equipment and supplies in Crimea that initially there was no noticeable shortage or problems with the southern front — they just dipped into these stockpiles. However, without continuous supply from Russia through the bridge rail link, they have now essentially run down these stocks to the point that operations in the south have been imperiled. They do have a road through the “land corridor” they maintain to Crimea, but truck transport is something the Russians are particularly bad at, so they have not been able to make the shortfall. There’s an alternative — the rail line through Debaltseve, Volnovaha, Kamysh-Zorya, to Kakhovka — but the railway station at Volnovakha is less than 30km from Vuhledar, and so within reach of Ukrainian fire. The Ukrainians had been shelling the Russians who have been trying to repair and maintain this line, and so the Russian attack seems to have aimed at pushing the Ukrainians further north, away from the railway. Thus far, these attacks have been thrown back — the ZSU have well-prepared defensive positions — and so nothing has come of the attempt to secure another line of supply.
This is important because it seems that the decision to withdraw from Kherson is, in part, related to this inability to keep supplying the forces on the right bank. Thus, the bombing of the Crimean Bridge might have meant a lot more than it being just a symbolic act.
So where does this leave us? The Russians appear to be forced to withdraw and yet they also seem determined to slow down the Ukrainians as much as possible. Their claims to care about the lives of Russian soldiers notwithstanding, the units that remain in Kherson have a lot of recently mobilized troops — the Russian command has been evacuating its best forces (I had reported about this weeks ago). While I hope they will not blow up the Kakhovka Dam, a distinct possibility remains. Overall, the impression is unmistakable — Putin is playing the long game, and its current phase is “delay as much as possible.”
The Russians are in desperate need of one thing, and this is time. Their international isolation has deepened to the point that Putin decided not to go to the G20 summit in Bali, and even Lavrov is only going to skype it in — there will be no Russian delegation in Indonesia. While speculation is rife as to the “real reasons” ™ of this, for our purposes it is sufficient to note that the Kremlin apparently did not relish the idea of hobnobbing it with fellow “key players” internationally.
The Kremlin has been looking for ways to cope with this, which is why Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova has been making noises about “negotiations that reflect current conditions” while head of Security Council Patrushev is in Tehran making deals for more arms (deals that some fear involve Russian transfer of nuclear technology to Iran). Internally, however, the regime maintains a tight grip on power, and has made a series of steps to transition the economy to a wartime footing. This despite the head of the Central Bank Nabiullina telling the Duma that the worst economic forecasts have become reality. While Putin can keep his throne — and there is no sign that it is shaking — Russia can keep fighting and throwing more men into the Ukrainian meat-grinder. The regime seems determined to do so.
The upshot is that the Western governments must prepare their publics for a protracted conflict. There will be no “negotiated solution” anytime soon — not while Putin thinks he can win, and just needs time for the new strategy to take effect. It is also very unlikely that the Russians would use nuclear weapons at this point. Moreover, the Ukrainians would be able to sleep more easily at night in Odesa — if ZSU eliminates the Russian presence from the right bank, Putin’s war aim to conquer Odesa and isolate Ukraine from the Black Sea would be denied for the foreseeable future. The West must stay the course rather than getting caught up in the euphoria of this victory and convincing itself that “surely now Putin would have to deal.”