Just last week the world watched agog as Russian forces abandoned Kherson city and withdrew to the eastern bank of the Dnipro river, destroying the bridges behind them to prevent any pursuit. From the announcement of the planned withdrawal by the Russian authorities on the ninth of the month, until their declaration that they had abandoned the city, only three days passed. Current speculation is that they had in fact started their move well beforehand.
How to explain this rapid development? Either the Russians have pulled off an impressive coup by withdrawing under the noses of the Ukrainians, or some local arrangement was reached whereby they were allowed to leave without their enemy interfering in exchange for some as yet unknown quid pro quo.
There may have been as many as 30,000 Russian personnel plus their equipment in the city but, whatever the case may be, it looks as if they got away with most of those troops and equipment to fight another day. As I have said frequently before, a withdrawal in contact and then making a clean break is a difficult military operation at the best of times, and yet that looks exactly what the Russians have been able to manage.
What happens next is an interesting question. The Russians are now in a far better position tactically speaking and are no longer under threat of encirclement and annihilation. They can now defend from the eastern bank of the Dnipro from the far stronger defensive positions that they have been preparing for some time.
Satellite imagery shows at least three defensive lines have been dug opposite Kherson city, and it is still easily within the range of Russian guns. The Ukrainians will not relish the thought of having to cross the river under fire. An opposed river crossing, as I have also said oftentimes before, is one of the most difficult operations in war.
The Antonivsky bridge and Nova Kakhovka dam are the only crossings of the Dnipro southeast of Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia city, and with both of them being damaged and probably impassable to anything bigger than light forces it will be difficult and dangerous for Ukrainian counterattacks to press ahead there.
On the other hand, if you look further northeast, the Ukrainians are already across the Dnipro further up the river and are miles in advance of its eastern bank. They may not have to attempt the difficult crossing in Kherson at all. The territorial concession at Kherson by Moscow leaves Russia occupying a core block of territory – the land bridge to Crimea – that Ukraine may well want to attack and inflict on the invaders another catastrophic military and political defeat.
An advance in the Zaporizhzhia sector towards Melitopol and Berdyansk is the obvious next point of counterattack to many military observers.
My bet is that they will strike there next, when they are ready and the weather allows, down the routes towards Melitopol, cut the connecting highway that links Russia with Crimea along the banks of the Black Sea, and attempt to roll up the remaining Russian forces in Kherson Oblast as they advance westwards.
By doing so they can once again squeeze the Russian forces now digging in opposite Kherson city, threaten them with being encircled and cut off from any escape route to Crimea, and thereby force their withdrawal. This, however, is not an enterprise that the Ukrainians can undertake lightly, even presuming the Russians are minded to stand and fight, and calls for detailed planning and preparation.
Do the Ukrainians have the wherewithal to carry out such a bold manoeuvre? The past months would encourage an answer in the affirmative; they seem to have the breadth of vision, the professional competence in their military, and the cojones to attempt just such a thing.
Two things, however, lie beyond their control. The first is the weather. Whilst there is little chance that military operations will grind to a complete standstill over winter, the rains and mud of autumn and spring, and the frosts and snow of winter, inevitably slow things down. These are harsh conditions in which both men and machines will have to operate.
The second, and perhaps most important, is the continuing supply of weapons and other materiel from the west. There is no sign at the moment that this is likely to stop, but world politics can be fickle. We have to be careful of war-weariness and the world transferring its attention elsewhere before Ukraine has brought this war to a successful conclusion.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk
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