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Lose Kherson, lose it all

After the defeat on the west bank of the Dnipro River, Russia could end up losing Melitopol, Berdyansk, and Mariupol. Here’s how that could happen

Yury Fedorov, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta Europe

Photo: ЕРА

On 9 November, general Sergey Surovikin, Russia’s top commander in Ukraine, reported the following to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu: “After a thorough assessment of the current situation, it’s proposed we take up defensive positions on the east bank of the Dnipro River.”

In other words, it was proposed to abandon the bridgehead on the west bank of the river that spanned parts of the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions of Ukraine, and respectively, Kherson.

According to British general Richard Shirreff, ex-Deputy Commander of NATO forces, the loss of Kherson is a “great humiliation” for Putin. Furthermore, the loss of the west bank of the Dnipro River is a big military defeat for Russia, comparable to driving out Russian soldiers from the Kharkiv region and banishing their Izium and Lyman groups of forces.

It could possibly have even greater significance. Two impressive victories by Ukraine’s Armed Forces in a row demonstrate that Russia losing the war is a real possibility now. The consequences for Putin personally and the governing regime would be less than ideal.

Chaotic evacuation

On 10 November, the day after Russia announced the evacuation from the right bank of the Dnipro, Ukraine’s Armed Forces began to take control of the settlements left behind by the enemy, moving towards Kherson from the northwest (alongside the M14 highway) and northeast (including alongside the Dnipro River bank).

On 11 November, Russia’s Defence Ministry announced that by 5 AM, “the operation aimed at redeploying Russian forces to the left bank of Dnepr [sic] had been accomplished. No hardware or armament have been abandoned on the right bank. <…> Any casualties in personnel, armament, hardware, and material means have been prevented.”

But the numbers spell out that no organised retreat could have taken place. The evacuation of Russian troops, most likely, resembled chaotic fleeing.

As of 10 November, according to Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, around 40,000 Russian soldiers and officers were present on the west bank of the Dnipro River. He thinks that it would have taken at least a week to move this number of troops to the east bank.

On 9 November, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, general Mark Milley, said he “believed a retreat was underway”, however, Russia “had amassed as many as 30,000 troops in Kherson”, so not one but several weeks would be needed for a full withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defence reported that 30,000 Russian servicemen and 5,000 units of armament and hardware had been withdrawn to the east bank; furthermore, the task was accomplished in two days instead of several weeks. This is the time period specified by state-owned news agency TASS. But the only way to move such a large number of troops and equipment in an organised manner across the river in two days under enemy fire is via teleportation.

Pro-Russian “war correspondents” later reported that by the morning of 11 November, around 20,000 people and 2,000-3,500 units of military equipment had been withdrawn. This assessment is unverifiable; however, it sounds more likely than the information provided by the Defence Ministry.

It is possible that the retreat of the troops began earlier than reported by Moscow, however, there is no concrete and credible information on the subject.

Furthermore, up to 10 November, Ukraine’s leadership was saying that no troops were being actually withdrawn and all the messages of the kind appearing online were an attempt to push Ukraine’s Armed Forces towards an assault on a fortified big city, which could have led to significant losses.

It is likely that at least several thousands of Russian soldiers, probably just recently drafted, had remained on the west bank of the Dnipro River by the morning of 11 November. They were left to their own devices after the elite forces had been withdrawn to the east bank — the Russian command being primarily interested in keeping those forces alive.

And seeing as the Antonivka bridge and the bridge across the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam were blown up in the early hours of 11 November, the remaining Russian soldiers’ best case scenario is to surrender into captivity.

The statement by the Russian Defence Ministry on all personnel and military equipment “casualties being prevented” during the retreat seems completely implausible. This will be a hard pill to swallow even for Russian generals, who are used to all kinds of statements.

For example, ex-commander of the 58th Army, General Gurulyov, currently a member of Russia’s parliament, unambiguously refuted the Defence Ministry statement.

A retreat, he noted, is one of the most difficult types of combat operations: “You’re constantly under enemy fire, the main routes are obvious, the roads are being shelled, the manoeuvre can’t be realised fully, to withdraw without losing positions is quite difficult.”

By the evening of 11 November, countless photos and videos showing the hardware left behind during the retreat had appeared online. Among the abandoned vehicles, there was a modern Russian tank T-90.

It is possible that detailed information on what was happening on the west bank during the last days and hours of Russian occupation will come out in the coming weeks. But the question of how many Russian soldiers were left behind on the west bank of the Dnipro River can potentially become one of the most inconvenient ones for Moscow to answer when it comes to the war between Russia and Ukraine.

What comes next

The west bank was occupied by Russia during the first week of March, however, it played a secondary role in Moscow’s strategic plans for the next month and a half. The Kremlin was betting on capturing Kyiv and other big cities in the east of Ukraine. However, that territory began to play a special role in Russian military plans in the middle of April.

On 22 April, TASS quoted general Rustam Minnekayev — he said that one of the tasks for the second stage of the “special operation” was to occupy not just Donbas, but of all southern Ukraine. That, in turn, would give Russia access to Transnistria. Thus, the west bank of the Dnipro River was a place of strategic importance to Russia.

Russia planned to launch two offensives from that territory: first of all, the offensive in the western direction, towards the cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa, and secondly, in the eastern direction, towards the city of Kryvyi Rih, and from there — towards the cities of Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro.

Elite Russian forces with good training were deployed to the west bank; two powerful groups of forces for combat in the west and east of Ukraine were created under the leadership of general Mikhail Teplinsky, commander of Russian Airborne Forces. In particular, three out of four divisions and all four brigades of the Airborne Forces were stationed there, a sort of crème de la crème of Russia’s army.

By the middle of the summer, the situation on the front lines had changed. In particular, Ukraine’s Armed Forces received long-range American HIMARS capable of keeping under the firing control the transport communications used for delivering provisions for Russian troops to the west bank — first of all, the quite vulnerable stationary bridges across the Dnipro River.

Ukraine’s Armed Forces began to accumulate forces for the liberation of the west bank. The prospect of a successful Russian offensive in the direction of Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih came into question. And then, the Russian command had to face the question: does it make sense to continue keeping large forces on this bridgehead?

The planned offensive was a no-go, while bridges being destroyed would seriously reduce the possibility of delivering provisions to the troops stationed there and decrease their fight capacity.

According to unverifiable but very plausible reports, the military command proposed the withdrawal of the troops from the west bank to Putin at the end of August, however, the president did not give his agreement until recently. Political interests and Putin’s goal of “saving face” no matter what dominated over military expediency.

Russian servicemen and political scientists state that large forces capable of fighting were withdrawn from the west bank, and they will be now used for offensives in other directions where they will change the situation in favour of Russia.

It is true that the most combat-ready forces of the Russian army were stationed on the west bank — battalion tactical groups, full of personnel and hardware, of two airborne assault divisions and three airborne assault brigades, one airborne division, the 45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade units and the Spetsnaz GRU units, tank and motorised infantry units, all of them still capable of fighting.

Now, they will, most likely, be deployed to the city of Bakhmut and the Luhansk region in the coming days. In both locations, things are not going great for Russia. Russian forces have been trying to break through the defences of Ukraine’s army for the last several months, in order to take Bakhmut by storm or be able to bypass it so they can gain access to operational space.

Moscow is constantly sending new soldiers to Bakhmut and Vuhledar, a city located in the south-west of Bakhmut — the soldiers mostly being the recent draftees, who are suffering major losses. In the Luhansk region, Russia is barely holding back the onslaught coming from Ukraine’s Armed Forces on the front area in between the cities of Svatove and Kreminna.

However, the plans of Russia’s General Staff could not come to fruition. By destroying the Russian bridgehead on the west bank of the Dnipro River, Ukraine freed up forces comparable to the number of Russian troops that had withdrawn to the east bank.

The possibility of Russian forces pressing ahead on the Dnipro River front and recapturing the west bank is basically zero. Thus, Ukraine will get an opportunity to move the major part of its troops stationed on the west bank and nearby to other parts of the front line. The part of the troops that includes 14 full-fledged brigades, which have become a de-facto operational reserve of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.

Russia’s command is expecting that at least six new Ukrainian brigades, 4,000-6,000 soldiers each, will be deployed to Donbas, the Zaporizhzhia region, or Svatove. Ukraine’s long-range artillery weapon engagement zone has significantly expanded in the southern part of Ukraine, up to the accessway to Crimea.

With their additional reserve units freed up, Ukraine’s Armed Forces now can go on the offensive both in the Luhansk region (on Svatove and, further ahead, on the city of Starobilsk) and in the southern direction.

In particular, in case of a potential breakthrough in the area of Hulyaipole and/or Vuhledar, Ukraine may even launch offensives on the cities of Melitopol, Berdyansk, and Mariupol. And that would lead to the destruction of all Russian defence in the south of Ukraine.

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