A week after Cherson’s release, it’s time for a midterm assessment: where does Ukraine stand in the war against Russia? And what ideas can be gleaned from success in the south for the future?
With the collapse of the Russian occupation regime in Kherson a week ago, Ukraine won another significant victory. To assess it, it is worth putting it in context with the course of the war so far. It is worth noting five great successes of the Ukrainians as key moments of the last months:
- Victory in the Battle of Kyiv (March): By repelling the pincer attack on the capital, the Ukrainians thwarted the Russian plan to remove the Zelensky government and achieve a quick decision on the war. After heavy fighting, the Kremlin had to withdraw its troops from the Kyiv region at the end of March.
- Defense of advance to Odessa (March): Another turning point that is often underestimated was the failure of the Russian Odessa operation. The capture of the third largest city would have completely cut Ukraine off from the sea. The decisive factor was the victory of the Ukrainians in the battle for Mikolayiv. This allowed them to prevent the invaders from crossing the Southern Bug and continuing to Odessa.
- Stabilization of the front in Donbass (July): After shifting the war to the east, the Russians initially gained ground. But since July (capture of Lisichansk) they are largely stagnant. Stabilizing the front despite initially flagrant artillery inferiority is another great success for the Ukrainians, albeit at the cost of heavy casualties.
- Counter-offensive near Kharkiv (September): By recapturing more than 8,000 square kilometers east of Kharkiv, the Ukrainians demonstrated their ability to launch large-scale counteroffensives for the first time. The capture of the strategically important city of Izyum thwarted the Russian plan for a pincer attack on the Donbass.
- Kherson liberation (November): By winning the battle for the only provincial capital Russia has captured since February, the Ukrainian military demonstrated another capability: long-distance warfare. The operation was not successful through a frontal attack, but through the systematic destruction of Russian supply routes. This forced the opponent to retire after a good three months.
The victory at Kherson is not only significant because it meant that the Russian troops lost any presence west of the Dnipro. It also provides insights that refute the hasty assumptions of the Western public. Ten of those fallacies and misinterpretations deserve a special mention:
- “Ukraine will not regain lost territories”: Linked to this is the “well-intentioned” advice that Ukraine would do better to accept peace rather than sacrifice more lives in the fight against an overwhelming opponent. This view ignores the fact that the leadership in Kyiv is constantly strengthening its bargaining position with successes like Cherson’s. Otherwise, it would have to accept huge losses of territory, which would not survive politically.
By far he likes observers like Elon Musk, the richest man in the world and sender of a own “peace plan” – it seems irrelevant who owns a certain strip of land on the globe. However, the people of Cherson, who have just been liberated from a regime of terror, see in this a difference of existential importance. The Ukrainians have now recaptured more than half of the territories occupied since February, giving the lie to the pessimists.
- “In the south of Ukraine sympathies for Russia predominate”: This opinion, which prevailed before the war, is kept alive by Kremlin propaganda. President Putin cites historical ties to southern Ukraine, once known as Novorossiya. The fact that the Russian language was still dominant in both the south and the east of the country until a few years ago also leads to false conclusions. Russian speaking should not be confused with friendship with Russia; this is already demonstrated by the example of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
In Kherson there may have been many cases of voluntary or forced collaboration with the occupiers, but the invaders were not greeted with jubilation at the end of February. On the contrary, there were repeated demonstrations against the occupiers. The celebrations in Cherson last weekend, on the other hand, make it clear how clearly sympathies are distributed.
- “Arms renditions only prolong the bloodshed”: This argument, presented by the former head of the German Bundeswehr, Harald Kujat, is used to criticize the support of Ukraine with Western war material. Western weapons are generally supposed to have the effect of escalation. However, the Kherson operation showed a completely different effect.
Thanks to US-supplied rocket artillery (Himars and M270 rocket launchers), the Ukrainian armed forces managed to make the Dnipro bridges in the south impassable and mark a military turnaround. The position of the Russian troops on the right bank of the Dnipro became untenable. For the population there, Western weapons did not prolong the war, on the contrary, they ended it for the moment.
- “Russia will keep its bridgehead by any means”: After the conquest of Cherson, the general secretary of the Kremlin’s United Russia party, Andrei Turchak, brought with him the message that Russia had “come here forever.” In fact, for strategic reasons, there was much to suggest that Moscow would keep this bridgehead on the country’s largest river and expand it if possible. From here opportunities opened up for offensives to the west and north, all the way to Kyiv.
As late as October, Russia sent additional troops to Cherson, including elite units such as airborne troops. This left Western military experts uncertain whether Russia would give up this land without a fight. Eventually though, that’s exactly what happened. In the long term, Moscow will probably lose the option of launching new offensives from the south.
- “The conquest of the annexed territory is a red line”: This is based on the assumption that under no circumstances can Putin afford to lose “Russian territory”. In September, Russia annexed four Ukrainian provinces in violation of international law. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the Cherson offensive was thus an attack on Russia itself. Nationalists and state propagandists called for the use of nuclear weapons against the advancing Ukrainians. In reality, nothing has changed militarily as a result of the annexation. Moscow relinquished control of the annexed areas around Kherson of its own free will.
- “With General Surovikin, the war in Russia is hardening”: The commander-in-chief, appointed in September, has a strong following among Moscow hardliners. Surovikin seems bold, but even he cannot simply magically remove structural weaknesses from the armed forces. His troops are still behind him. Cherson’s withdrawal bears Surovikin’s handwriting. The general probably calculates that the units released as a result can be used more effectively in other sectors of the front.
Moment Surovikin and Shoygu admit defeat in the Kherson direction and announce the withdrawal of troops. pic.twitter.com/10UZgVuIcm
— Dmitry (@wartranslated) November 9, 2022
- “Newly mobilized troops are changing the balance of power”: With the partial mobilization ordered in September, Moscow wants to reinforce the professional army deployed in Ukraine with 300,000 recruits. According to official figures, by the end of October 87,000 men had already been sent to the war zone. According to some reports, newly mobilized troops were also deployed to Cherson. However, no clear effect of mobilization can be seen so far, which may be due to lack of training, poor equipment, and lack of battle morale. Mobilization remains a threat to Ukraine, but at least on the Kherson front it has been ineffective.
- “Militarily nothing can be done against the annexation of Crimea”: A reconquest of the occupied peninsula in 2014 is currently hard to imagine. But this fall things have changed. Thanks to the advance on the Dnipro, the Ukrainians can now bombard almost the entire area north of Crimea with their rocket artillery. They attack nodes and bases on a daily basis. This will make it difficult to supply the peninsula from the north and reduce the value of the “land bridge” created during the war from Russia to the Crimea.
Since the Kerch bridge bombing in October, supplies from the east have also been affected, revealing a hitherto unknown Russian vulnerability on the peninsula. This alone will not end the annexation, but it will provide Kyiv with another power argument in future negotiations. Also, newly built tank traps and the trenches on the northern Crimean border fueled Russian fears of a Ukrainian offensive.
The Russians are renovating old trenches and digging new ones in northern Crimea and Kherson Oblast – OSINT analyst Benjamin Pittet pic.twitter.com/bYbLhs443S
— Ukrainska Pravda in English (@pravda_eng) November 9, 2022
- “The liberation of Cherson is the biggest victory of the Ukrainians so far”: This thesis of the specialized magazine “Foreign Policy” seems unfounded. As much as Ukraine is excited about a return to Kherson, the importance of recent events should not be overestimated. Unlike the other great Ukrainian successes, the victory in Cherson has only limited consequences for the time being. At the moment, the Dnipro is probably too big a natural obstacle for the Ukrainians to advance across the river any time soon. Both sides are more likely to move their troops to the east and meet there.
- “Putin has lost all connection with reality”: The Kremlin ruler’s decision to invade Ukraine long ago turned out to be a catastrophic mistake. In various ways, it was presented as the act of a madman. However, the withdrawal from Kherson, politically painful as it is, shows that Putin is still capable of cool deliberation. He could have ordered the military to hold out in Kherson, delaying the moment of shame. But that would have exposed his troops to a desperate war of attrition. Putin remains a rational opponent, which doesn’t make him any less dangerous.
The city of Cherson is of great strategic importance for both parties to the conflict. Our military expert Georg Häsler explains why.