A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 19, 2022

As Russia Retreats From Kherson, Scenarios For What May Happen Next

As Ukrainian troops advance, Russian forces around Kherson are increasingly at risk of destruction or surrender, either of which even Putin's 'not one inch of retreat' mindset can imagine would be worse than the alternative. 

But it is hard to imagine Putin giving up Kherson without a fight - or a holocaust. Scenarios described in greater detail below range from victorious Ukrainian troops marching in under flowers thrown by adoring crowds (highly unlikely) to 'if I can't have it neither can they,' followed by a tactical nuke (quite possible - which is among the reasons Ukrainian forces are proceeding slowly). The in-between scenarios include deporting tens of thousands of Kherson residents to Russia, which already appears to be under way, then turning Kherson into a fiercely defended fortress, reducing it to a smoking ruin like Mariupol and Severodonetsk. While the nuclear option cannot be ruled out, the smoking ruin option seems most likely at this point. JL

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Over the last three days, a trickle on Telegram hinting at Russian units being reassigned out of Kherson has turned into a flood of evacuation orders instructing people to leave the city immediately. On Wednesday morning, Russian soldiers, local officials, and civilians were visible along the west bank of the wide Dnipro River, waiting for barges to take them east. What now? 1) Russia leaves and Ukrainian forces stroll into Kherson to cheering crowds. 2) Russia ships off a portion of the civilian population, turns Kherson into a fortress, and digs in. 3) Putin decides to engage in the “if I can’t have it, nobody can” view of Kherson, thinking it’s better that the city burn.

Over the last three days, what started as a trickle of Telegram statements hinting at Russian units being reassigned out of the Kherson area, has turned into a flood of evacuation orders instructing people to leave the city immediately. On Wednesday morning, Russian soldiers, local officials, and civilians were all visible along the west bank of the wide Dnipro River, waiting for barges and ferries that will take them away to the east.

Some Russian spokesmen, like Kirill Stremousov, who serves as the head of Russia’s occupation government in Kherson, are stating that “the battle of Kherson is about to begin.” Others, like commander of Russian army group “South” Gen. Sergei Surovikin, sending to be sending every possible signal that Russia is preparing to withdraw from the entire area. Overnight, Vladimir Putin formally declared martial law in all four of the oblasts now claimed by Russia. Something is definitely changing.

Local officials have issued evacuation orders giving every possible excuse people might need to leave the city—from warnings that the dam at Nova Kakhovka is in danger of failure, to claims that Ukraine is about to use some “illegal,” but unspecified, weapon on the city. More than one of these warnings has also come with insinuations that Russia might engage in “total war” against Ukraine’s forces in Kherson, a term that some have interpreted as meaning Putin could break out a tactical nuke. Or nukes. 

Of course, that fear is constantly present when dealing with Putin. As kos has noted, Russia has actually reduced the nuclear saber-rattling considerably over the last few days. While it’s easy to read a nuclear threat into any large action taken by Russia, bombing a city that Putin has claimed as his own makes no more sense now that it has in the past, and honestly, if that’s his intent … it would be a move so irrational that it’s not clear there’s anything that can be done about it.

While some are reading the declaration of martial law as another signal that Putin is about to open the silos, he himself has brushed it off as a “technicality.” More likely that declaration is about stomping on human rights and forcing Ukrainians to somehow participate in their own destruction, as both limitations on rights and the possibility of mobilization were mentioned in the declaration.

Kherson is the largest city that Russia has managed to occupy, and the only regional capital it has taken since its 2014 invasion. Even before the mock “referendums,” Russia had invested a lot of effort into the whole “Kherson is Russia forever” theme. That idea was plastered on billboards, turned into state-sponsored “celebrations,” and taught to children in schools where attendance was somewhere beyond mandatory. That Russia would then simply abandon Kherson—or destroy it—seems unthinkable.

Of course, Ukraine has done much to grease the skids to this moment. By damaging first the Antonivskyi Bridge at Kherson, then the Kakhovka Dam Bridge at Nova Kakhovka, and finally the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Russia and Crimea Oblast, Ukraine systematically increased the difficulty of keeping Russian forces west of the Dnipro River supplied and maintained. Ukraine then began a counteroffensive that meant Russian forces sitting and hoarding their limited supplies was out of the question.

For the past two weeks, it’s largely seemed as if that counteroffensive was frozen in place. Even when there have been reports of Russian forces pulling back from a location, Ukraine seems to have not risked sizable forces in attempting to gain additional ground. But if each day along that line was forcing Russia to expend ammunition and equipment it couldn’t easily replace, then the strategy was brilliant. Every day has brought Russia closer to either retreating before the bullets run out, or surrendering in place when they do.

That, of course, is speculation. But however it was achieved, Russia is giving every sign of departing from Kherson. So … what now?

1. Russia leaves completely and Ukrainian forces stroll into Kherson to cheering crowds

This is, of course, the dream scenario. Starved of supplies and with a pending collapse of their position in sight, Russian forces simply get on boats and leave. Along with them go civilians who collaborated in their Vichy government, the traitors who allowed them across the Antonivskyi Bridge in the first place, and everyone who thinks that deportation to Russia sounds like a peachy idea. Left behind are all the Ukrainians who have weathered the storm, and a city that’s remarkably intact. 

How likely is this outcome? Frankly, I don’t have the means to determine the likelihood of any of these scenarios. Following such a departure, Russia might well decide to sit up across the river and fire artillery back into the city. They might also do their best to damage the city as they are departing. But if Ukraine gets a major city without a major battle, it’s a miracle of the first order.

2. Russia ships off a portion of the civilian population, turns Kherson into a fortress, and digs in

Some weeks ago, when Ukraine first damaged the bridges, there were rumors that Russia intended to withdraw forces from much of Kherson, create a much smaller circle around the city itself, and defend that location counting on overlapping fields of fire to reduce the overall amount of artillery ammunition required. Something similar could still happen. Russia reportedly isn’t thrilled about the idea of engaging Ukraine in a street fight, where it would be forced to defend Kherson block by block against advancing Ukrainian forces, but it might still have the apatite for shortened defensive ring around the city.

3. Russia uses this as an excuse to deport tens of thousands from Kherson

There’s always the possibility that Russia doesn’t withdraw from Kherson at all. Instead, it creates an atmosphere of fear, loads Ukrainian civilians onto barges, and it’s next stop Siberia. Have fun at your new home in the Gulag! Meanwhile, a reduced population is easier to keep fed and Russian soldiers have more choices of homes to ravage. In other words, this is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or at least, nothing that really changes conditions in Kherson militarily.

4. Vladimir Putin does something really stupid

Maybe he’s watched The Dark Knight Rises one too many times, and he leaves a nuclear bomb sitting in the central plaza. Maybe he drops a rain of incendiaries and tries to blame it on Ukraine. Maybe he blows the dam at Kakhovka and claims it was all HIMARS fault. Maybe he has a box of extra-flea-ridden plague rats warmed up.

If Putin decides to engage in the “if I can’t have it, nobody can” view of Kherson (or thinks it’s better that the city burn than the horrors of what Russia has been doing there are revealed), there’s not a lot that can be done to stop him. But there’s a hell of a lot that can be done after. I’m not even going to get into those scenarios.

If I were forced to bet which of these outcomes is more likely, I’d guess what’s coming is something closer to 2 or 3 than either the happy, or disastrous, results at the ends of the scale. The idea that Russia would just leave Kherson seems so unlikely, I expect something like another repositioning, one that would cede more ground, but leave Russia still fighting in the area of the city.

But please, surprise me. Watching Ukrainian forces flow into Kherson is one parade I would actually pay to see.

Is it too late to send them some dress uniforms?

Kherson area on the brink of change.

There are reports this morning that Bruskynske has been liberated again, which could be an indication that a withdrawal from the front line is beginning. On the other hand, it could also be simply wrong, as this would not be the first time that position had been reported liberated.


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