Evacuation Of Kherson: Bluff or Reality?

The city of Kherson, in the Oblast (region) of the same name and in the south-eastern corner of Ukraine, fell to the Russian invaders in early March. It has been held by them ever since, the only major Ukrainian conurbation to have suffered this fate. And now the word is that the occupation may be coming to an end.

“General Armageddon”, Sergei Surovikin, who was made Russia’s commander in Ukraine just recently, announced the withdrawal on Russian state television a couple of days ago, surrounded by his senior military commanders. He declared it was part of a general repositioning of Russian troops which would see them pull back entirely from the western bank of the River Dnipro.

From a military point of view this makes absolute sense. The Russians have been squeezed into an ever-diminishing pocket around Kherson city as the Ukrainians advance closer. There may be as many as 30,000 Russian personnel there and resupplying such a large number has become increasingly difficult, especially as the Ukrainians have constantly interdicted their opponent’s supply lines and rendered bridges unusable and their replacement pontoons and ferries extremely hazardous, thanks in the main to the US-supplied HIMARS rocker systems and the GPS-guided Excalibur 155mm artillery rounds.

Another consideration to be borne in mind is, if the Russians are indeed withdrawing, whether they are able to take some, or any, of their heavy equipment with them. It’s hard to see how they can, given the state of the bridges and ferries, and without it they will be a spent force, requiring rest and re-equipping before they are any use to anybody. That won’t happen overnight.

Politically it will be a bitter pill for Putin to swallow as, yet again, his strategic plan – whatever that may have been – crumbles before the eyes of the watching world. For him it is a personal humiliation, another failure in his mad military adventure, and it is no surprise that he left it to his generals to make the announcement.

The Ukrainians’ reaction has been cautious so far. They fear they might be being lulled into a false sense of security and are being lured into a trap. It’s perfectly possible that the Russians will fight for the city still. One of the basic rules of warfare is never to fight your battles on ground of the enemy’s choosing and the Ukrainian army will want to avoid doing just that. There has also been the fairly ludicrous suggestion that the Russians will let the Ukrainians retake the city and then level it with a nuclear weapon. I don’t think so somehow.

However, if the Ukrainians do end up in charge of the Kherson oblast and city on the western ban of the Dnipro, they are then faced with a major tactical problem if they wish to continue on their advance towards Crimea. The river is a mighty obstacle, and the Russians will have completed the earlier work of their enemy and demolished what remains of any of the crossings.

A river crossing is one of the more difficult military operations as I know from personal experience, and that was in peacetime with nobody shooting at us. An opposed river crossing is an order of magnitude harder, calling for careful planning, gathering of resources, and successful cooperation between all the various arms and branches of the services involved.

In addition, and just to complicate matters further, satellite imagery shows quite clearly that the Russians have been preparing defensive positions on the eastern bank for some time. Opposite Kherson city itself there seem to be three main defensive lines, so it will probably be a hard nut to crack. Unless something unusual happens, I can’t see any attempt to force a crossing before the spring, and even then it’ll be a big ask.

All of this is in the future, of course, and we have to wait and see if the Russians do abandon the city as per their announcement. My personal view that they’re not bluffing or deliberately setting a trap for their enemy, but rather taking a rational and sensible military decision in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

We can only hope that they don’t then take their revenge by bombarding the city from their artillery batteries across the river, levelling buildings and killing civilians in the process. Or is such restraint too much to ask of them?

Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk

Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available for pre-order now

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