Pjotr Sauer

10 Nov 2022

The Guardian

As has often been the case, Vladimir Putin was not present to deliver the bad news. On the day Russia announced a retreat from the Ukrainian city of Kherson, the Russian leader was touring a neurological hospital in Moscow, making no mention of the monumental decision.

It was instead Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and its commander in Ukraine, Gen Sergei Surovikin, who explained in a televised exchange that holding Kherson was no longer tenable.

Putin’s silence felt even more deafening on Thursday as the defence ministry announced in its daily briefing that it had “in strict accordance with the approved plan” begun retreating from Kherson, the only regional capital captured by Moscow since the start of the war. “Putin doesn’t want to deliver the bad news and take responsibility for this retreat,” said a former senior defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal. “He does not want to be associated with failure. This has been his modus operandi for years,” the official said, pointing to an earlier military retreat from Ukraine’s north-eastern region of Kharkiv, which Putin similarly ignored, instead spending the day inaugurating a giant ferris wheel.

Experts who closely follow Putin said his decision to abandon Kherson was also a reminder of his readiness to make tactical concessions when pushed against the wall. “It is wrong to say that Putin never retreats or backs down. This just shows again that Putin can be pragmatic,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst at R Politik, an analysis firm. “This decision was clearly a very emotional one for him but he took it. He can be rational.”

The former defence official said the Kherson withdrawal further exposed Moscow’s dire military situation on the ground, which was too blatant for Putin to ignore.

Military experts have for weeks predicted that Russia would struggle to keep Kherson as it could no longer support troops who have been mostly cut off from their supply lines. “It came to the point where Putin simply could not ignore Surovikin’s warnings any more,” the former official said. “The Ukrainian army simply had the upper hand in Kherson.”

According to US intelligence reports cited by the New York Times in September, the Russian president had that month rejected requests from his commanders in the field to retreat from Kherson.

The decision to withdraw, therefore, appears to mark a significant change in his thinking. According to the former defence official, who claimed to be in regular contact with his ex-colleagues, Putin intends to “freeze” the conflict while his much-damaged army regroups and trains the large numbers of newly mobilised soldiers that, according to official figures, surpass the 300,000 originally announced. “Putin is in no rush. He sees this as a longer, large-scale conflict with the west,” the official said. “He is an opportunist by nature. His strategy now is to see how things stand by the end of winter and then reassess the strategy.”

The Kherson retreat is the latest in a string of military defeats for Russia. But while Kyiv’s Kharkiv offensive caused Russian units to flee in disarray and an unprecedented rupture within the Russian ruling class, Wednesday’s decision was met with understanding by some of the most aggressive critics of the conduct of the military campaign.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman ruler of Chechnya, and the Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin applauded in sync the Kherson retreat, with the former describing it as a “difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of high-profile statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers”.

Stanovaya said their responses were a testament to the Kremlin’s eagerness to learn from past mistakes. “This time, the Kremlin has clearly coordinated this withdrawal with the aggressive prowar elements within the elites. Putin did not want to see any public division again.”

Some analysts have seen in Surovikin’s appointment in October the Kremlin looking for a respected military commander to take the political blow for retreat.  “It was obvious that Surovikin’s appointment and the praise heaped upon him were at least partly due to the need to create a figure with a mandate for ‘shameful’ actions that Putin didn’t want to take in his own name,” said Alexander Baunov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinktank. “Surovikin is the perfect figure to announce the retreat,” the former defence official, who has previously worked with Surovikin, similarly said. “Surovikin has no enemies within the system and can’t be blamed for not understanding the military situation.”

Military experts have also said Russia appeared to be eager to avoid tactical mistakes made during the chaotic and disorganised Kharkiv retreat, which put hundreds of pieces of abandoned Russian heavy armour into Ukraine’s hands.

Russian forces spent weeks before the withdrawal announcement fortifying defensive positions on the east bank of the Dnipro River, where the rest of the army is now expected to take up positions. “If Russia can withdraw its units without heavy losses, it will likely be in a stronger position to hold its existing frontlines because it can move these reverses around more easily to hold the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, a thinktank. “That is why how the withdrawal is conducted is critical.”

The loss of Kherson may also be welcomed by some ordinary Russians shocked by Putin’s decision to order a mobilisation that was followed by reports of mass casualties of ill-prepared conscripts, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has studied public attitudes towards the war in Russia.

He pointed to a recent poll that showed while 44% of Russians still “definitely supported” the actions of their army, only 22% were “definitely” in favour of continuing military action. “Big parts of the society, including segments that support Putin, are getting tired of the war, and any reduction in losses is a plus for Putin,” Kolesnikov said.

It was no surprise, he added, that Shoigu and Surovikin emphasised the preservation of human life as the main motive behind the retreat from Kherson. “On the background of already existing anxieties created by the mobilisation, it is rather reckless to mount a big defence of Kherson which could lead to a massacre,” he said.

However, Wednesday’s announcement did not satisfy everyone. “Kherson is surrendered. If you don’t care about this then you are not Russian. If this didn’t hurt, you’re worth nothing,” said Alexander Dugin, a far-right nationalist whose daughter was killed earlier this year in a car bombing.

Dugin then proceeded in the post to his Telegram channel to levy a rare criticism that appeared to be directed at the Kremlin. “The war must become a people’s war in the full sense of the word. But the government must become for the people. And not what it is now.”