Russia's withdrawal from Kherson: fear of a trap

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday ordered his troops to leave the city and move to the western bank of the Dnieper River

REUTERS/VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI  -   Ukrainian servicemen fire a 2S7 Pion self-propelled gun on a frontline in the Kherson region, Ukraine, 9 November 2022

Russia is withdrawing from Kherson, the only regional capital Moscow has held since the invasion began. A few hours after the announcement by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the international community reacted to what is now considered another milestone for Ukrainian troops. "It is encouraging to see Ukraine able to liberate territory", said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. 

In Ukraine, however, the celebration is not particularly effusive. Julio Suárez Rodríguez, father of Vitaly Suárez, a Ukrainian who is in Kherson oblast, told Atalayar about the situation of his friends and family in the city. "They are afraid. They think that what is going to happen there is a Russian trap for the Ukrainians. In fact, Russian soldiers have dressed up as civilians and are hiding in flats and houses", Julio said.

Russian Defence Ministry via REUTERS - Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attends a meeting with Defence Ministry officials November 9, 2022

A position very similar to that of Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky: "The enemy does not give us gifts, does not make gestures of goodwill", he said in his daily radio address on Wednesday night. "Today there is a lot of joy in the information space, and it is clear why. But our emotions must always be restrained during war," the president declared in the climate of victory over the Russian withdrawal from Kherson. 

Not all is recovered. Kiev's fears of a possible offensive from the eastern side of the Dnieper River are becoming increasingly real. "We don't know what will happen. If Ukrainian troops enter the city, and if the Russians shell, they can do terrible damage. When the Russians left, they looted all the museums, churches, took away the artwork, looted the hospitals and took away the medicines. From this we can read that what they want is to destroy the city," said Julio Suárez.

AFP/AFP - Map showing Russian attacks in Ukraine on 9 November

According to the latest report from the British Ministry of Defence, Russian forces destroyed bridges and "probably laid mines to slow and delay the advance of Ukrainian forces". Meanwhile, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in its latest report has deemed it "unlikely" that the Russian withdrawal was a trap to lure Ukrainian troops into what many analysts considered to be an urban battle.

In any scenario, both British intelligence and the ISW agree that the Russian withdrawal from Kherson will take several days and Russian forces will try to repel any complications with artillery so that units arrive in good order on the eastern bank of the Dnieper.

With the withdrawal from Kherson, Russia loses for the moment one of the main objectives in the course of the invasion: to use the city of Kherson as a key to the conquest of Odessa, the main Black Sea port, and a possible land corridor to Transnistria, the pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova. Ukraine, according to analysts, can ensure economic viability and regain the possibility of launching an offensive to cut the currently uncoordinated land corridor between the Donbas and Crimea.

PHOTO/AFP - Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-backed Kherson administration

In any case, Russia's withdrawal from Kherson represents a turning point in the conflict. "Recalibrate positions", as US President Joe Biden puts it. According to the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, the decision was preceded by problems in resupplying troops, which was compromised after the Ukrainian counteroffensive that began in August. The Kremlin's decision was announced hours after the death of the Moscow-imposed deputy governor in Kherson, Kiril Stremousov, the only voice opposing the withdrawal of Russian troops from the oblast, was reported. Yet another murder charge against Putin's regime.