Russian retreat from Kherson city sets stage for more hard combat

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Russia’s expected military withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson opens the door to a larger Ukrainian advance on the battlefield, U.S. and Ukrainian officials said, but success is unlikely to happen soon as winter draws to a close and both sides bolster combat units with additional weapons and ammunition. and staff.

The assessments came amid signs that Moscow’s forces were following Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s order on Wednesday to pull back southeast across the Dnieper River to preserve their forces. The decision left open the possibility that Ukrainian troops could enter the city within days, which was home to nearly 300,000 people before the Russian invasion in February, said Roman Kostenko, a Ukrainian army colonel and member of parliament.

“We see all these signs – blown up bridges, leaving villages, heading towards the Dnieper River,” Kostenka said. “We’re seeing them pull back.”

These moves disrupted the battlefield, which was already chaotic after nine months of fighting. Some officials in Kiev questioned whether the Russian announcement was a trap designed to draw in Ukrainian forces. It also remained unclear Wednesday whether some Russian forces could become trapped on the west side of the river, depending on how quickly Ukrainian troops advance.

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US officials credited Moscow with making the decision to avoid a repeat of their chaotic and bloody failure in the Kharkiv region, when Ukrainian forces broke through Russian front lines in September, seizing hundreds of square miles and vast amounts of hastily abandoned Russian military equipment. This time, Russia’s retreat appears to be strategic, actively retreating to safer positions and preparing for future battles.

“Russia realized that it would be better to withdraw early than to be overwhelmed by the Ukrainians and suffer huge losses,” said Jim Stavridis, a US Navy admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. “The Ukrainians won’t stop until they fully recover the city – and they shouldn’t.” It has great geographical, military and psychological value.

The recapture of Kherson, after Ukraine raised a blue-and-yellow flag over the city that Russian forces captured in a fight, will mark the Kremlin’s latest major battleground in Ukraine. Hawkish Russian military bloggers lamented the withdrawal, calling it a betrayal.

Stavridis predicted that Ukraine could seize Russian military equipment “and potentially reveal additional evidence of Russian war crimes, including what has become their modus operandi of extortion, torture, detention and mass murder.”

In the Mykolaiv region, northwest of Kherson, Ukrainian medic Ivan Malenkij said Wednesday that his unit was already clearing landmines planted by Russian forces there to anticipate what might await Ukrainian troops in Kherson.

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“Now we ourselves don’t understand what the front line is, or the second line or whatever,” Malenkij said. “We just know they’re gone. Where they went and what they left behind is unclear.

What you need to know about Russia’s withdrawal from the city of Kherson

U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday night that 20,000 to 30,000 Russian forces remained on the west bank of the river and it would take time for them to withdraw. But he also saw “initial indications” that a pullback was underway, he said.

“It won’t take them a day or two,” Milley said, speaking at an event at the Economic Club of New York. “It will take them days, maybe even weeks, to get their forces south of that river.

Ukrainian forces have been slowly advancing toward Kherson for weeks, targeting ammunition centers, command posts and supply facilities in the region and putting pressure on Russian forces, said Yuri Saks, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense ministry.

“Literally, they can’t stay in Kherson anymore because they can’t supply their troops with ammunition, supplies,” Saks said in an interview. “It is no longer possible for them to continue fighting.

Despite large numbers of soldiers posting videos and selfies of retaken villages on social media, Ukrainian military commanders are reluctant to broadcast their next steps.

“Winter will be a factor,” Saks said. “It could be slower, it could be faster, depending on the weather conditions. But we are not going to stop. We will continue our counterattack meter by meter, village by village.

Departing Russian forces are laying mines and blowing up bridges as they retreat from the city of Kherson, and there are concerns that some troops may be hiding in the city and waiting for a trap, Ukrainian officials said. Ukrainian troops advancing on the opposite bank of the river will also be within range of Russian artillery.

However, a complete withdrawal from the city of Kherson is now considered inevitable. Ukrainian forces have targeted Russian supply lines and stifled Moscow’s ability to support front-line troops.

“The Russians can certainly set up some traps in Kherson, but they never had enough troops or logistics to hold these right-bank positions,” said another Ukrainian government adviser, who was not authorized to speak to the press for comment on the situation. anonymity.

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Before Shoigu’s announcement, a NATO official said Russian troops were in a “terrible situation” in Kherson, with only one supply line to the east.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share an analysis of the evolving situation, said that while Russian officials had called for the evacuation of civilians from the city and were pulling more experienced troops east across the river, the recently mobilized troops had been decimated. was sent to the city, and the total number of Russian forces there did not change. NATO officials do not understand why the Russian military made such a decision, the official said.

But just as the Dnieper has been an obstacle for the Russians to replenish their army, Ukraine will not be able to easily get east and south from there to Crimea. Instead, outside observers and Ukrainian officials said, Kyiv is likely to focus on cutting off remaining Russian supply lines from the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, before moving forces to fight other occupied territory.

“We don’t have the geographic ability to quickly liberate Crimea,” said a second Ukrainian adviser. “First of all, we have to liberate the entire southern part of Ukraine, and we will not do it from the right bank of the river. Now we have a theater on the left bank and all the activities will be on the left bank.

Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general who has followed the war closely, said Ukrainian forces crossing the Dnieper would be a major operation and that the Russian military would inflict heavy casualties on them.

“I don’t see it happening anytime soon,” Ryan said after visiting Ukrainian officials in Kiev last month. “Ukrainians are likely to look to other axes of progress to round up the south.”

Ryan said Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson is not a “game changer” in its goal of reclaiming Crimea, but is “a step closer.” He said that other parts of the Kherson region and neighboring Zaporozhye in the east must be captured first.

“It will be a methodical and deliberate sequence of battles and campaigns in the south, culminating in the campaign for Crimea,” Ryan said.

Ben Hodges, the former commander of the US Army in Europe, also predicted that Ukrainian commanders could soon advance to Zaporozhye, where the nuclear power plant seized by Russian troops is located. Hodges said sabotaging electricity access ahead of the harsh winter was a key strategy for Moscow, and taking control could be a priority.

Hodges said there have been reports of Russian commanders swapping battle-hardened troops for newly mobilized troops in the south as Moscow strengthens defense lines across the river. While it makes tactical sense to force Ukraine to cross the river to move forward, poorly trained and equipped conscripts may struggle to do so, he said.

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Hodges predicted that Ukraine will be able to retake Crimea by the end of next summer. But that mission would be made easier by using long-range artillery, which the U.S. has so far kept out of Ukraine, he said.

The United States has provided missile artillery with a range of about 50 miles, so Crimea is still out of Kherson’s reach, Hodges said. For months, Kyiv has asked the U.S. for missiles with a range of nearly 200 miles, known as the Army Tactical Missile System, which could reach Russian military targets on the peninsula, but the Biden administration has refused to send them, seeing it as an escalation. it may provoke Moscow.

The winter months can bring extra hardship on the battlefield.

As the temperature drops and the war becomes more of a test of endurance and will, units with personnel and morale problems may find those problems worsen.

“I would hate to be a Russian soldier sitting in a trench in southern Ukraine,” Hodges said. “This is another example of how they trade organs for time.”

Poorly disciplined troops may struggle to survive the grueling guard duty, leaving Ukrainian forces with security gaps, said Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Research.

Another challenge for both sides will be to limit the extent to which the cold exposes their positions. Vehicles and people produce thermal energy that can be detected by infrared sights that soldiers carry hand-held and attach to some drones and vehicles.

Winter will also reduce the amount of overhead cover, as leafless trees provide little cover. Even a generator hidden in a trench will generate heat that will help identify targets for artillery strikes, Lee said.

Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries in southern Ukraine have built elaborate lines of trenches dotted with concrete anti-tank pyramids dubbed “dragon’s teeth”. The move could be a PR stunt, Lee said, or it could be a hard lesson learned from Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces advanced on unfortified Russian lines.

Either way, the front lines at the river’s edge are likely to tighten again as Russian and Ukrainian forces hurl artillery and mortars at each other in an icy winter of human suffering.

Sly reported from Kyiv and Miller reported from the Mykolaiv region.

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