A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 5, 2022

Russians Retreat From Ukraine Kherson Advance, Leaving Conscripts To Fight

The Russians are withdrawing their most experienced and capable forces from Kherson, leaving recent conscripts who are poorly trained and equipped to dig in and do as much damage as they can. 

The strategy is aimed at inflicting some casualties on advancing Ukrainians while preserving their most valuable forces to resume offensive operations in the spring. JL

Matthew Luxmoore reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Russian forces in the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Kherson appear to be laying the groundwork for a withdrawal, replacing elite forces with mobilized troops, and abandoning some checkpoints around the city and its airport. Moscow has given priority to a temporary bolstering of forces in the area to cover the retreat. The bulk of Russian commanders have already withdrawn across the Dnipro.

Russian forces in the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Kherson appear to be laying the groundwork for a withdrawal, but Ukrainian officials warn that their enemy could be seeking to suck precious armored units into debilitating urban combat.

As Ukraine’s forces press toward Kherson, one of the biggest prizes Russia seized after invading in February, Moscow’s military wants to sap their strength while avoiding the kind of chaotic withdrawal it recently carried out in the northeast.

The question is how long Moscow will seek to hold Kherson. There are signs Russian forces are preparing to leave the city, moving residents and personnel onto the far bank of the Dnipro River, replacing elite forces with mobilized troops, and abandoning some checkpoints around the city and its airport while digging in elsewhere.

Signaling that heavy fighting might lie ahead, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Friday for civilians to be evacuated from Kherson.


“They’re building fortifications in a hurry,” said Natalia Humenyuk, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s southern command. “We’re sure they’re going to fight for Kherson.”

A Western official said Russian planning for a withdrawal was well advanced and that Moscow had likely given priority to a temporary bolstering of forces in the area to cover the retreat. The bulk of Russian commanders had already withdrawn across the Dnipro, the official said, and Russia was seeking to reinforce a new defensive line on the eastern bank.

“They’ve probably made a strategic decision to withdraw over time,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at defense-research organization CNA. “They’re likely trying to make the seizure of Kherson costly for the Ukrainian armed forces.”

But Ukrainian and Western officials and analysts said Russia would seek to wear down advancing Ukrainian forces as much as possible before withdrawing, if necessary.

At a farmhouse barracks near the front line, the soldiers of a Ukrainian tank battalion were repairing equipment and resting from battles that, after weeks of relentless fighting, have drained their energy.

“Most of us have been fighting since February with no breaks or days off,” said the battalion’s 52-year-old deputy commander. “It’s a very long time, too long, to endure such conditions.”

Four or five times a day, with breaks to reload their guns, the unit drives Soviet-made T-72 tanks to position and fires at Russian troops, who respond with their own salvos.

For much of this summer, it was Russia on the front foot, advancing behind artillery barrages. But Ukrainian forces ground them down as they advanced, and then went on the offensive.

Kyiv’s forces retook almost the entire northeastern Kharkiv region in September in an advance that boosted morale, replenished their stocks with seized Russian arms, and sent a signal to Western allies that their arms support is having an impact. Mr. Putin warned of a possible nuclear response if Russian-claimed territory including Kherson were threatened, and Ukrainian soldiers on the southern front are now being issued iodine pills that offer some protection from radioactive exposure.

However, the push in the south has been far slower. Ukraine’s military is fighting village by village toward Kherson, but soldiers from several units said they are short on armored vehicles. Far from conducting the kind of chaotic withdrawal witnessed in Kharkiv, the Russians are in places strengthening their lines of defense, the Ukrainian soldiers say.

“The official information is that the offensive on Kherson is going well. But that’s only partly true,” said a soldier whose unit is positioned south of the city of Mykolaiv. “They’ve dug in deep. And things for us are tough.”

In mid-October, Moscow-installed officials in Kherson announced an evacuation of civilians from the western bank of the Dnipro and Russia’s military leadership warned that “difficult decisions” might be necessary to preserve lives.

The city lies on the river’s western bank and has been largely cut off from the eastern bank by Ukrainian precision strikes against bridges and other supply lines that had been used to reinforce Moscow’s troops in the city.

If the Russians leave with most of their forces intact, Mr. Kofman said, they can consolidate defensive lines on the Dnipro’s eastern bank and shift sizable forces elsewhere. Ukraine will have taken most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of offensive operations, he added, but it will next face Russia along a more entrenched front to the north and northeast.

Ukraine’s main offensive push in the Kherson region is a thrust south toward the city of Nova Kakhovka, where a dam across the Dnipro functions as a natural boundary. If Ukraine can capture the dam, it would secure control of a major supply line to Kherson—and a potential escape route.

Each side has accused the other of plans to blow up the dam, a move that would destroy water supply to Russian-held Crimea and risk major flooding. Moscow and Kyiv have denied each other’s allegations.

After months of fighting, many villages near the southern front line are deserted, reduced to rubble by Russia’s scorched-earth artillery attacks. The fins of Russian cluster bombs and Grad rockets litter the area, interspersed with deep craters that make the green fields of this arable region resemble moon craters.


In the village of Velyke Artakove, 6 miles from Russian positions, laundry hangs out of washing machines in hastily abandoned homes where the walls have fallen in and piles of dust-covered clothes are strewn across the floor, left by residents who desperately rifled through their possessions before fleeing bombardment.

In recently recaptured areas north of Kherson, Ukrainian authorities are restoring basic services. In Zolota Balka, a village with a prewar population of 1,600, locals reminisce about their liberation despite still being shelled from across a narrow stretch of river now separating them from Russian-held territory.

Nina Ovsypian, a 71-year-old pensioner, recalled the arrival of several dozen Ukrainian troops in the village on a drizzly day last month after the Russians withdrew. She invited a whole platoon to her living room, warmed them and cooked them food.

“I’ll never forget that day in my life,” she said. “They were exhausted and dirty, but I was hugging them and was overcome with happiness. They said they had liberated us and would liberate Kherson too.”

Several factors complicate Ukraine’s onward advance. Winter is coming, and it will bring not only frozen ground but also greater exposure for troops on both sides as foliage disappears from trees used to provide cover for armor and the tracks of vehicles remain visible in snow. The complicated geography of the Kherson region is another issue. Unlike Kharkiv in the north and Donbas in the east, much of Ukraine’s south is covered by steppe, with flat fields leaving troops visible to entrenched Russian troops, increasing the pace of attrition and slowing the rate of advance.

“It’s flat land, as far as the eye can see,” said a 23-year-old tank platoon commander, who from his front-line position southeast of Mykolaiv can power up a small surveillance drone, zoom in to the maximum extent and see the city of Kherson in the distance. “It’s impossible to hide.”

This geography affects various aspects of Ukraine’s campaign. Russia is fielding modern T-90 tanks that stand out of range of many antitank weapons, and can see in advance any grouping looking to break through. “These T-90 crews know when we’re coming, and they can wipe us out if we’re not careful,” said Vadim Aza, a 25-year-old private whose company was recuperating in Mykolaiv as it awaited personnel and equipment to make up for recent losses.

Pinpointing the location of those tanks is a challenge because Russian electronic-warfare systems are causing many Ukrainian drones to malfunction, said the soldier in position south of Mykolaiv. When reconnaissance teams set off to spy out Russian armor, they sleep for days in forested areas, wearing adult diapers so as not to leave behind signs of their presence and risk being found by the enemy.

“These teams can check who is arriving at the Russian bases and what is being trucked in,” he said. “If they bring in a diesel canister, that probably means they’re running a generator. If they bring in 10 canisters, then it’s probably for a tank.” At that point, they send coordinates to artillery teams that spring into action in hopes of neutralizing another armored vehicle belonging to an enemy that possesses thousands.


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