Politics
What did Ukraine gain by liberating Kherson?
November 12, 2022
  • Nikolay Mitrokhin 
    Research Center for East-European Studies at the Bremen University (Germany)
Nikolai Mitrokhin gives an outlook for how the war will proceed from here and predicts that the Russian army won’t be able to win any major victories, while Kiyv has a chance to liberate the south of the country.
A map showing the Kherson/Mykolaiv frontline. Source: Wiki Commons
As Russian troops withdraw from the right bank of the Dnieper, Russian pro-Kremlin media and individuals are emphasizing the "bitterness of defeat." The Ukrainians, suspecting deception on the part of Russia, have been more circumspect in their comments. Soon we might find out the approximate scale of the losses of the Russian army on the right bank, while the whole picture will become clear only later.

But the consequences of the Russian defeat – which shouldn’t be considered surprising in light of the failures of the Russian army back in March-April – are much bigger than it seems to many right now.

1.Ukraine is liberating (taking back) half of Kherson Region and the only regional capital that the Russian army managed to capture since the beginning of the war. In Mykolaiv Region, the lone district that was under Russian control will be liberated, meaning the region (besides a small section of the Kinburn Spit on the left bank) will be completely free. In terms of the size of the liberated territory, it exceeds the successful Izium-Liman operation and is the second largest victory in the war after the liberation of Northern and Northeastern Ukraine in March-April.

2.The strategic danger of a Russian bridgehead on the right bank will be eliminated. If things had gone the other way, it could have been used as a launching point for a Russian breakthrough into the heart of Ukraine (cutting off half of the east and the entire south of the country) and to the south (to encircle Mykolaiv and break through to Odessa), as well as to the west of Kryvyi Rih and for a partial blockade of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia). 

3.The Ukrainians won’t let the Russian army across the Dnieper anymore. 
"Essentially, this means that even if events go unfavorably for Ukraine, the Russian army is losing the potential to tear the country in half and destroy its core military and economic power."
The entire south controlled by Ukraine is entering a phase of strategic security, as an amphibious assault by Russia looks unlikely, while now a ground offensive has also been rendered impossible.

4.The Ukrainian army can now reduce two groupings (Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih) down to one (Kherson), considerably scaling down the density of troops, especially scarce assault units and armored vehicles. The positions on the high right bank of the Dnieper allow Ukrainian troops – even without a unified line of defense and many fortified areas – to set up outposts and create reserves that can repel landings and provide artillery cover. Experienced advanced units and armored vehicles can now be transferred to another, promising direction – for example, Zaporizhzhia.

5.Russia, meanwhile, will need to have on the 300 km-long front not only "posts" and reserves to stop a landing, but a system of fortifications to be built from scratch—moreover, it will have to be built along a considerable distance on the low left bank, which can be shelled from the opposite, high bank for many kilometers. Since a Ukrainian landing is quite likely, substantial resources will have to be spent on reserves. If the operation goes well, the Ukrainian landing force can get to the Crimean isthmuses and “cut off” the entire Russian Zaporizhzhia grouping. Overall, it will be much more difficult for the Russian army to transfer troops to the Zaporizhzhia front than for Ukraine.

6.Residents of Kakhovka, Nova Kakhovka, Oleshky, Hola Prystan and other cities and villages along the left bank will have to be resettled, and all economic activity there stopped. This means that the already-low potential of the part of Kherson Region still under occupation will be reduced further. Instead, new problems will arise related to the resettlement of the residents.

7.This could set up potentially the most “gainful” Ukrainian operation of the war, i.e. a breakthrough in the Hulyaipole or Vuhledar area, opening the way to Berdyansk, Melitopol and Mariupol along a short route through sparsely populated steppe (which can be easily shelled by HIMARS). An additional advantage is that in the forest belts, the leaves are falling, leaving Russian equipment without natural cover from reconnaissance and drone strikes. Thus, there is a chance to finally liberate southern Ukraine and considerably “tighten up” the frontline, driving Russian troops back to where they came from – Crimea.

Russian bloggers have been talking about such a scenario for months now. The Russian army is now sluggishly trying to build fortifications against such a breakthrough in the area of Mariupol and the Arabat Spit leading to Crimea. Still, Russia has been building up reserves in this area since about August, including new armored vehicles that were spotted crossing the Crimean Bridge (before it was attacked). Thus, as soon as November-December we could see a major battle between the two armies or an offensive by the Russian army in Zaporizhzhia (Boris Rozhin – Russia’s most popular war blogger, based in Crimea – predicted this in a November 10 post).

The withdraw without a fight from Kherson, which had been the capital of the annexed region, is a clear sign that it is a matter of neither command errors (as in Kharkiv Region), nor planning errors (as in the case of Kyiv and Chernihiv Region).
"The fact is that the war, as it was planned, has been entirely lost due to the flawed ambitions of politicians, combined with the inflated vanity of the Russian command (which the popular Rybar Telegram channel, supposedly close to the GRU, has acknowledged)."
For months, supporters of the war had dreamed of mass mobilization or a "war for real" with mass strikes against Ukraine's civilian infrastructure. Both dreams came true in September-October, though they didn’t prevent another crushing defeat.
These failures have demonstrated the weakness of the Russian army, which could neither properly mobilize, nor arm the mobilized, nor stabilize its positions in Kherson Region, and which doesn’t even have a sufficient stock of missiles to finish off Ukraine’s power industry (the Rybar team recently conducted a partial analysis of satellite images of Ukrainian power plants and found that a minimal number of units had been hit, while defenses and fire-fighting infrastructure had been put in place). Now there can be no talk of any new major victories, let alone the "denazification" and "demilitarization" of Ukraine. 

There is still no answer to the question of what Ukrainian territories will remain under Russian control after the end of hostilities and negotiations – in particular, whether the Donbas (or at least the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”) and Crimea will remain Russian-controlled. What is sure is that the notion, among Russia’s “war party,” that the Russian army is systematically more powerful than the Ukrainian army and should ultimately win has been debunked.
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