David Axe

Forbes Staff

Nov 10, 2022

The Kremlin has ordered its forces to withdraw from the city of Kherson on the Black Sea coast in southern Ukraine.

The order comes eight months after the Russians captured Kherson and its 300,000 residents, six months after Ukrainian troops began bombarding the Kherson garrison’s supply line and two months after Ukrainian brigades launched a counteroffensive in the south aimed at liberating Kherson.

It’s a profound victory for Ukraine, and a major defeat for Russia. Arguably the biggest Russian defeat in a generation.

The Ukrainians already had the momentum in Russia’s nine-month-old wider war on Ukraine. Now it’s safe to say the Ukrainians actively are winning the war—and soon could advance on other Russian-occupied territories and cities – the destroyed historic port of Mariupol, for instance, or even the strategic Crimean Peninsula.

The order for Russian forces to retreat to the left bank of the wide Dnipro River, which runs just south of Kherson before emptying into the Black Sea, came from Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu rather than from Russian president Vladimir Putin. In that way, Shoigu insulated his boss from the outcry that followed the announcement.

Russian media figures and military bloggers melted down over Kherson. “What is happening is a combination of catastrophic mistakes,” one blogger lamented.

Gen. Sergey Surovikin, commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine, explained the rationale for the retreat in a report to Shoigu. With the ongoing Ukrainian bombardment of supply depots, bridges and railways, it’s no longer possible to supply tens of thousands of Russian troops north of the Dnipro, Surovikin explained. And defensive positions south of the Dnipro should be much stiffer—and better able to slow a Ukrainian assault.

Surovikin is right. But left unsaid is what happens once Ukrainian forces liberate Kherson and take up positions on the Dnipro opposite the Russians. From there, the Ukrainians with their European-made howitzers and American-made rocket launchers easily can strike the Isthmus of Perekop, the three-mile-wide strip of land, 45 miles south of Kherson, that connects the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula to Kherson Oblast south of the Dnipro.

Crimea, which Russian troops seized from Ukraine back in 2014, is the base for all Russian

operations in southern Ukraine, the pin holding together the occupation of the entire region.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has made no secret about his intention eventually to liberate Crimea. “I will go to Crimea,” Zelesnky said when asked what he will do. “I really want to see the sea.”

For the Ukrainian military, liberating Kherson is a step toward liberating Crimea. Soon, Ukrainian rockets and gun barrels will begin zeroing in on the Isthmus of Perekop, the gateway to the occupied peninsula.

Even after losing as many as 100,000 men killed and wounded in Ukraine, the Russian army still possesses significant combat power, but probably not enough to hold everywhere all the time.

“Once Kherson is liberated and the Ukrainians cross the Dnipro River in significant numbers and capabilities, the Russians will have to make a tough choice,” noted Luke Coffey, a fellow with the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

That choice will be to defend Mariupol or the Isthmus of Perekop. “I can’t see how they can do both,” Coffey said.