Russia Abandons Kherson
In January, 1944, the newly reconstituted German Sixth Army found itself in an operationally cataclysmic situation in the southern bend of the Dnieper River, in the area of Krivoi Rog and Nikopol. The Germans occupied a dangerous salient, jutting out precariously into the Red Army’s lines. Vulnerable on two awkward flanks, and facing an enemy with superiority in manpower and firepower, any general worth his salt would have sought to withdraw as soon as possible. In this case, however, Hitler insisted that the Wehrmacht hold the salient, because the region was Germany’s last remaining source of manganese – a mineral crucial for making high quality steel.
A year prior, in the opening weeks of 1943, Hitler had intervened in another, more famous battle, forbidding the previous incarnation of the Sixth Army from breaking out of a pocket forming around it at Stalingrad. Prohibited from withdrawing, the Sixth was annihilated wholesale.
In both of these cases, there was a clash between pure military prudence and broader political aims and needs. In 1943, there was neither a compelling military nor political reason to keep the 6th Army in the pocket at Stalingrad – political intervention in military decision making was both senseless and disasterous. In 1944, however, Hitler (however difficult it is to admit it) had a valid argument. Without manganese from the Nikopol area, German war production was doomed. In this case, political intervention was perhaps warranted. Leaving an army in a vulnerable salient is bad, but so is running out of manganese.
These two tragic fates of the Sixth Army illustrate the salient issue today: how do we parse the difference between military and political decision making? More specifically, to what do we attribute the shocking Russian decision to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnieper in Kherson oblast, after annexing it just a few months ago?
I would like to parse through this issue. First off, one cannot deny that the withdrawal is politically a significant humiliation for Russia. The question becomes, however, whether this sacrifice was necessary on military or political grounds, and what it may signify about the future course of the conflict.
As I see it, the withdrawal from west bank Kherson must be driven by one of the four following possibilities:
Let us simply run through these four and examine them in sequence.
Possibility 1: Military Defeat
The recapture of Kherson is being fairly celebrated by Ukrainians as a victory. The question is just what kind of victory it is – political/optical, or military? It becomes trivially obvious that it is the first sort. Let’s examine a few facts.
First off, as recently as the morning of November 9 – hours before the withdrawal was announced – some Russian war correspondents were expressing skepticism about the withdrawal rumors because Russia’s forward defensive lines were completely intact. There was no semblance of crisis among Russian forces in the region.
Secondly, Ukraine was not executing any intense offensive efforts in the region at the time the withdrawal began, and Ukrainian officialsexpressed skepticism that the withdrawal was even real. Indeed, the idea that Russia was laying a trap originates with Ukrainian officials who were apparently caught off guard by the withdrawal. Ukraine was not prepared to pursue or exploit, and advanced cautiously into the void after Russian soldiers were gone. Even with Russia withdrawing, they were clearly scared to advance, because their last few attempts to push through the defenses in the area became mass casualty events.
Overall, Russia’s withdrawal was implemented very quickly with minimal pressure from the Ukrainians – this very fact is the basis of the idea that it is either a trap or the result of a backroom deal that’s been concluded. In either case, Russia simply slipped back across the river without pursuit by the Ukrainians, taking negligible losses and getting virtually all of their equipment out (so far, a broken down T90 is the only Ukrainian capture of note). The net score on the Kherson Front remains a strong casualty imbalance in favor of Russia, and they once again withdraw without suffering a battlefield defeat and with their forces intact.
Possibility 2: It’s a Trap
This theory cropped up very soon after the withdrawal was announced. It originated with Ukrainian officials who were caught off guard by the announcement, and was then picked up (ironically) by Russian supporters who were hoping that 4D chess was being played – it is not. Russia is playing standard 2D chess, which is the only kind of chess there is, but more about that later.
It’s unclear what exactly “trap” is supposed to mean, but I’ll try to fill in the blanks. There are two possible interpretations of this: 1) a conventional battlefield maneuver involving a timely counterattack, and 2) some sort of unconventional move like a tactical nuclear weapon or a cascading dam failure.
It’s clear that there’s no battlefield counter in the offing, for the simple reason that Russia blew the bridges behind them. With no Russian forces left on the west bank and the bridges wrecked, there is no immediate capacity for either army to attack the other in force. Of course, they can shell each other across the river, but the actual line of contact is frozen for the time being.
That leaves the possibility that Russia intends to do something unconventional, like use a low yield nuke.
The idea that Russia lured Ukraine into Kherson to set off a nuke is… stupid.
If Russia wanted to use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine (which they don’t, for reasons I articulated in a previous article) there’s no sensible reason why they would choose a regional capital that they annexed as the site to do it. Russia has no shortage of delivery systems. If they wanted to nuke Ukraine, very simply, they wouldn’t bother abandoning their own city and making that the blast site. They would simply nuke Ukraine. It’s not a trap.
Possibility 3: Secret Deal
This was sparked by the news that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has been in contact with his Russian counterpart, and specifically the sense that the White House has been pushing for the negotiations. Under one rumored variant of the “Sullivan Deal”, Ukraine would acknowledge Russia’s annexations east of the Dnieper, while west bank Kherson would revert back to Kiev’s control.
I find this unlikely for a variety of reasons. First off, such a deal would represent an extremely pyrrhic Russian victory – while it would achieve the liberation of the Donbas (one of the explicit goals of the SMO) it would leave Ukraine largely intact and strong enough to be a perennial thorn in the side, as an inimical anti-Russian state. There would be the problem of probable further Ukrainian integration into NATO, and above all, the open surrender of an annexed regional capital.
On the Ukrainian side, the issue is that the recovery of Kherson only enhances the (false) perception in Kiev that total victory is possible, and that Crimea and the Donbas can be recovered entirely. Ukraine is enjoying a string of territorial advances, and feels that it is pushing its window of opportunity.
Ultimate, there seems to be no deal that satisfies both sides, and this reflects that the innate hostility between the two nations must be resolved on the battlefield. Only Ares can adjudicate this dispute.
As for Ares, he has been hard at work in Pavlovka.
While the world was fixated on the relatively bloodless change of hands in Kherson, Russia and Ukraine fought a bloody battle for Pavlovka, and Russia won. Ukraine also attempted to break Russia’s defenses in the Svatove axis, and was repulsed with heavy casualties. Ultimately, the main reason to doubt news of a secret deal is the fact that the war is continuing on all the other fronts – and Ukraine is losing. This leaves only one option.
Possibility 4: A Difficult Operational Choice
This withdrawal was subtly signaled shortly after General Surovikin was put in charge of the operation in Ukraine. In his first press conference, he signaled dissatisfaction with the Kherson front, calling the situation “tense and difficult” and alluding to the threat of Ukraine blowing dams on the Dnieper and flooding the area. Shortly thereafter, the process of evacuating civilians from Kherson began.
Here is what I think Surovikin decided about Kherson.
Kherson was becoming an inefficient front for Russia because of the logistical strain of supplying forces across the river with limited bridge and road capacity. Russia demonstrated that it was capable of shouldering this sustainment burden (keeping troops supplied all through Ukraine’s summer offensives), but the question becomes 1) to what purpose, and 2) for how long.
Ideally, the bridgehead becomes the launching point for offensive action against Nikolayev, but launching an offensive would require strengthening the force grouping in Kherson, which correspondingly raises the logistical burden of projecting force across the river. With a very long front to play with, Kherson is clearly one of the most logistically intensive axes. My guess is that Surovikin took charge and almost immediately decided he did not want to increase the sustainment burden by trying to push on Nikolayev.
Therefore, if an offensive is not going to be launched from the Kherson position, the question becomes – why hold the position at all? Politically, it is important to defend a regional capital, but militarily the position becomes meaningless if one is not going to go on the offensive in the south.
Let’s be even more explicit: unless an offensive towards Nikolayev is planned, the Kherson bridgehead is militarily counterproductive.
While holding the bridgehead in Kherson, the Dnieper River becomes a negative force multiplier – increasing the sustainment and logistics burden and ever threatening to leave forces cut off if Ukraine succeeds in destroying the bridges or bursting the dam. Projecting force across the river becomes a heavy burden with no obvious benefit. But by withdrawing to the east bank, the river becomes a positive force multiplier by serving as a defensive barrier.
In the broader operational sense, Surovikin seems to be declining battle in the south while preparing in the north and in the Donbas. It is clear that he made this decision shortly after taking command of the operation – he has been hinting at it for weeks, and the speed and cleanliness of the withdrawal suggests that it was well planned , long in advance. Withdrawing across the river increases the combat effectiveness of the army significantly and decreases the logistical burden, freeing resources for other sectors.
This fits the overall Russian pattern of making harsh choices about resource allocation, fighting this war under the simple framework of optimizing the loss ratios and building the perfect meatgrinder. Unlike the German Army in the second world war, the Russian army seems to be freed from political interference to make rational military decisions.
In this way, the withdrawal from Kherson can be seen as a sort of anti-Stalingrad. Instead of political interference hamstringing the military, we have the military freed to make operational choices even at the cost of embarrassing the political figures. And this, ultimately, is the more intelligent – if optically humiliating – way to fight a war.