After Losing Kherson, How Will Putin Hold Russian Line In Ukraine?
Okay, let’s first dispense with what they call the strategic implications of Russia's retreat from Kherson: It's a defeat. In fact, it is Putin’s third defeat since the beginning of the war. There was the retreat of Russian forces from their positions around Kyiv in late March and early April, and then in September, there was the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region in the northeast, when Ukraine re-took 7,200 square miles of territory it had lost to the Russians early in the war.
To put it bluntly, it’s not a good look for Vlad the bare-chested macho man, who began the war in February thinking his forces would roll into Kyiv and take a surrender from the Ukrainian government in a matter of weeks. Didn’t happen.
Russia began the war holding a small piece of the Donbas territory in the east, including the regional capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. Invading from Russian territory in the east and from the Russian-held Crimean peninsula, Russian forces over the first several months of the war managed to spread their holdings west from the Donbas, taking most of the Luhansk region, more of the Donetsk region to the south, finally connecting with Russian forces that had invaded from Crimea and had seized most of the Zaporizka region along the sea of Azoz, including the port city of Mariupol. They seized Kherson and connected with their forces in Zaporiska until Russia controlled a corridor stretching from the Russian border in the north and south through Donbas to the Sea of Azoz and the Black Sea at Kherson.
That is where things stand, with Ukraine having retaken a good deal of its territory east of Kharkiv. In the north, Ukraine’s front lines now threaten the city of Donetsk and are moving steadily east toward the city of Luhansk. In the south, of course, Russia has announced its pull-out from the city of Kherson, leaving its forces still holding the corridor through Mariupol and north into the Donbas.
What are they going to do now? They’re going to set up a front line east of Kherson so they can hold the two land-bridges that lead from Ukraine to Crimea and their essential supply lines for their forces in the south of Ukraine. They won’t hold the port of Kherson anymore, but they will still control all of the coast of Ukraine east of there, including the city of Melitopol in the south of the Zaporiska region.
It's useful here to pause for a moment and recall that it was just over a month ago that Russia held its so-called annexation referendums across its entire holdings, including the Kherson, Zaporiska, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions. Now Russia is fighting fierce battles to hold its lines across the entire front of the regions it said it had annexed.
With the strategic stuff out of the way, let’s talk about what the retreat from Kherson means to the Russian army. In military terms, a retreat is called a retrograde operation. At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York; at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia; at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; and at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania – all places where U.S. soldiers learn tactics and strategy -- they teach that a retrograde operation is the most difficult and dangerous thing an army can undertake on the battlefield. There is a simple reason why that is so. You’re going backwards. You’re looking over your shoulder at the enemy, rather than looking at him straight on.
When an army is in retreat, it’s under attack by the enemy. It’s not like the enemy army just stops for a while, so you can pick up your stuff and put your army in reverse. While you’re going backwards, they’re shooting at you. This can cause panic and lead to all kinds of irrational stuff, like leaving your weapons and ammunition behind as you flee backwards.
We saw lots of this in the Kharkiv region in September when Ukrainian forces pushed the Russian army out of the cities of Izyum and Lyman, which had been Russian strongholds and important points where Russian forces had been resupplied and reinforced with additional soldiers. The Russian army abandoned tanks, armored personnel carriers, howitzers, and massive stocks of ammunition as they retreated east further into Luhansk and away from Kharkiv. This will probably also be the case in the Kherson region. The Russian army has been dug into positions to the west and north of Kherson on the west side of the Dnipro River since they took that area in March. They’re being forced to abandon headquarters, bunkers, trenches, and other defensive positions they have held for months.
When they get where they’re going, further east of Kherson where their new front lines will (presumably) be established, they’re going to have to do it all over again. Dig more trenches. Reinforce more bunkers. Find new places where company and battalion headquarters can be established so they are not vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery and rockets.
A retreat on the scale of Russia’s movement out of Kherson will be a big fat mess.
It’s not just physical stuff like weapons and equipment and ammunition and defensive positions. It’s a loss. It’s depressing. If you are an enlisted soldier in the Russian army, all the land you fought so hard to take from the Ukrainians, you’re now giving up. If you are one of the 300,000 Russian recruits who are said to be just now reaching their assignments on the Russian front lines in Ukraine, the first thing you’re told to do is pick up all your stuff and get the hell out of there! It’s like you’re a player who has just been put into the football game, and your quarterback is sacked and you’re going backwards. You’re not moving down the field and scoring. You’re losing to the other team. People back in Russia are watching, they’re effectively sitting up in the stands holding up those signs reading “DEFENSE,” and you’re losing yardage rather than gaining it.
It's known that the war in Ukraine, shall we say, is somewhat lacking in support among the Russian people. Seven hundred thousand men were said to have fled into Georgia and Kazakhstan to escape Putin’s draft. They were helped by friends and family. Flights out of Russia, the ones that could leave and have a place to land in a friendly country, were said to be packed.
And now the losers in that equation, the young Russian men who were in many cases rounded up by Russian police and forced to get on buses to Russian recruitment and training centers, they’re just now getting off trucks somewhere down in south Ukraine near Kherson, and the guys in the units they’re joining aren’t drinking beer and celebrating a big victory. They’re in retreat.
It's never a good sign for a soldier when the first thing he’s told to do is pack up and move out and the direction he’s going is backwards.
If I were to put my finger on the most important meaning of the Russian retreat from Kherson, it’s the effect such a retreat has on soldiers. They are giving up land they fought hard to get and hold, and now they’re being told they are going to have to do what they already did before, which is dig trenches and do all of the defensive shit work armies have to do when they establish new front lines, and this time they are going to have to do it under enemy fire. Because if you’re winning and moving forward and taking land from the enemy, you have the enemy on the run, and they don’t have much time to set up howitzers and shell you and run patrols against you. But if you’re losing, it’s your enemy that is moving forward, and they’ve got plenty of time to bombard you with everything they’ve got.
These days, the Ukrainians have precision M777 155 mm howitzers and HIMARS precision rocket launchers, and over the past four or five months they’ve gotten very good at putting them to use. In fact, that’s why the Russian army is in retreat: They were taking too many casualties on the west bank of the Dnipro River and in their other defensive positions around Kherson. That is why Putin had to impose his draft in the first place. Russia is losing too many soldiers on its front lines. Ukraine has gotten better and better at killing them.
That is the final meaning of the Russian retreat from Kherson. Putin cannot afford to have his forces constantly in retreat, taking casualties and losing land and men and weapons and ammunition. He has to keep his supply lines from Crimea open. The new defensive line the Russian army establishes to protect them must be the last one they establish and hold in the south.
It's either that, or Putin’s hold on Crimea means nothing. If he can’t move men and equipment and supplies from Russia through Crimea to his forces in the south of Ukraine, he will lose Melitopol, and then he’ll lose Mariupol, and then his forces will essentially be pushed back into the scrap of land they held in the Donbas before the war began.
If that happens, Putin will have only two choices: sue for peace or start launching nuclear weapons. With his forces in retreat from Kherson, that is where Putin finds himself. It’s not a good place for a macho man at all.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
Reprinted with permission fromLucian Truscott Newsletter
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