Jubilant scenes erupted in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson on Friday as Ukrainian forces advanced through much of the city and its environs, apparently meeting little or no resistance in retaking the only regional capital captured by Russia this year.
Russian forces have withdrawn to the east bank of the Dnipro River, which runs through the wider region, also called Kherson, which was annexed by Russia in September in violation of international law.
The withdrawal is another humiliating setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the most significant military moment of the war since Ukrainian forces swept through the northern Kharkiv region in September.
The Russian withdrawal was ordered this Wednesday during a choreographed meeting in Moscow between Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Sergey Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, which was shown on Russian state media.
In abandoning the western half of Kherson, the Russians withdrew from thousands of square kilometers, including some of the best farmland in Ukraine, which they had occupied since the first days of the invasion.
Surovikin said the withdrawal would protect the lives of civilians and troops, who have faced a punishing Ukrainian counteroffensive that has targeted Russian ammunition depots and command posts, hampering their supply lines.
Russian forces have now ceded about 40% of the Kherson region, which straddles the Dnipro, within days.
Now that Ukrainian forces have retaken Kherson to the Dnipro River, the two sides face off across the river at a distance of about 250 kilometers (155 miles), from the area around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to the edge of the Black River. Mar.
The withdrawal, while presented as a prudent military move to save resources and allow them to be deployed on other fronts, deals a heavy blow to Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine.
Just a few weeks ago the Kherson region was annexed, illegally incorporated into the Russian Federation. Now some 10,000 square kilometers of land are back in Ukrainian hands, and accurate Western-supplied artillery is within range of Crimea.
Russia still maintains control of about 60% of the Kherson region south and east of the Dnipro, including the coast along the Sea of Azov. As long as Moscow’s troops control and fortify the east bank of the Dnipro, Ukrainian forces will struggle to damage or disrupt the canal that brings fresh water to Crimea.
The move to the east bank will make it easier for Russia to replenish its troops and restore defense in depth. Any attempt by Ukrainian forces to cross the Dnipro would be prohibitively expensive, as Russian forces are well entrenched along one stretch of the river. Pill guard booths have become a common sight; Trenches appeared on satellite images and civilians were unceremoniously removed from houses near the river.
In Moscow, some hawkish commentators lamented the withdrawal as a humiliation and an embarrassment. But others who were once critical of the Ministry of Defense accepted the move. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said Surovikin saved a thousand soldiers and “made a difficult but correct choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers.”
Kadyrov added that Kherson was a difficult place to fight, especially without guaranteed supply routes.
President Volodymyr Zelensky declared Friday “a historic day” for Ukraine. “We are returning to the south of our country, we are returning to Kherson,” Zelensky said.
The Ukrainian military’s new success, following a rapid advance across much of Kharkiv in September, will help bolster international support for Ukraine’s war effort, even as U.S. officials urge Zelensky to tone down his rhetoric on the negotiations, if not their fundamental demands. .
Success in Kherson may also allow depleted Ukrainian units some respite, as well as allow focus to be redirected to the Donbas, where fierce fighting continues in both Luhansk and Donetsk.
But Russia has plenty of weaponry and tens of thousands of newly mobilized troops to send into battle, and its campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure has left energy and water supplies hanging by a thread in many regions. Ukraine is slowly receiving advanced air defenses from Western donors, but it has a huge area to defend.
Ukrainian authorities also face a huge reconstruction task in Kherson, where Russian forces destroyed critical infrastructure and left behind a large number of mines.
On Friday, satellite images from Maxar Technologies and other photos showed that at least seven bridges, four of them crossing the Dnipro, had been destroyed in the past 24 hours.
Further damage also appeared at a critical dam that crosses the Dnipro in the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region on the east bank of the river. For weeks, both sides have accused the other of planning to breach the dam, which if destroyed would cause major flooding on the east bank and deprive the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant of water to cool its reactors.
Ukraine laid the groundwork for its victory in Kherson last summer with relentless long-range attacks on Russian supply depots, rail hubs and bridges. He is using the same tactic now in Luhansk.
The events in Kherson and Kharkiv demonstrated that the Ukrainians possess a tactical agility that seems alien to the Russian way of warfare, as well as vastly superior intelligence on the battlefield.
Russia’s merciless bombing, especially in Donetsk and Lugansk, has undoubtedly killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers since the invasion began. But it is hard to imagine such a forceful instrument achieving Putin’s goal of reaching the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk, especially since Ukraine has now shifted the front lines in the south to such an advantage.