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Russian retreat from Kherson city sets stage for more hard combat

Ukraine’s advance in the south has Moscow’s forces on the run. But Russian fortifications and the Dnieper River will slow a push on Crimea.

Ukrainian soldiers take shelter from Russian shelling in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine on Saturday. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

Russia’s expected military withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson opens the door to more Ukrainian battlefield advances, U.S. and Ukrainian officials said, but significant gains beyond that are unlikely to come soon as winter bears down and both sides bolster combat units with additional weapons, ammunition and personnel.

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

“We see all these signs — blown up bridges, leaving the villages, heading towards the Dnieper River,” Kostenko said. “We see that they are pulling back.”

The moves jumbled a battlefield picture that already was chaotic after nine months of fighting. Some officials in Kyiv have questioned whether Russia’s announcement is a trap meant to draw in Ukrainian forces. It also remained unclear Wednesday whether some Russian forces could be stranded on the west side of the river, depending on how quickly Ukrainian troops advance.

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U.S. officials assessed that Moscow made the decision to avoid a repeat of their chaotic, bloody failure in the Kharkiv region, in which Ukrainian forces broke through Russian front lines in September, seizing hundreds of square miles and vast quantities of hastily abandoned Russian military equipment. This time, it appears that the Russian retreat is strategic — proactively pulling back to safer positions and preparing for future combat.

“Russia realized it would be better to have an early withdrawal than to be overrun by Ukrainians and suffer massive losses,” said Jim Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO. “Ukrainians will not stop until they fully retake the city — nor should they. It has enormous geographic, military and psychological value.”

The recapture of Kherson, complete with Ukraine raising its blue-and-yellow flag over a city that Russian forces seized in March, would mark the latest major battlefield setback for the Kremlin in Ukraine. Hawkish Russian military bloggers have lamented the retreat, calling it a betrayal.

Stavridis predicted that Ukraine could seize a “windfall” of left-behind Russian military equipment and perhaps uncover additional evidence of Russian war crimes, “including what has become their modus operandi of rape, torture, detention and mass murder.”

In the Mykolaiv region, to Kherson’s northwest, a Ukrainian medic, Ivan Malenkyi, said Wednesday that his unit already was cleaning up mines laid there by Russian forces, in a potential preview of what might await Ukrainian troops in Kherson.

“Now we don’t understand ourselves what’s the front line, the second line or whatever,” Malenkyi said. “We just know that they left. Where they went and what they left behind is not clear.”

What to know about Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson city

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 western bank of the river and that it would take time for them to withdraw. But he, too, saw “initial indicators” that the retreat was underway, he said.

“This won’t take them a day or two,” Milley said, speaking at an event at the Economic Club of New York. “This is going to take them days and maybe even weeks to pull those 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 Yuriy Sak, an adviser to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.

“Literally it’s no longer possible for them to stay in Kherson because they’re unable to provide munitions to their army, provide provisions,” Sak said in an interview. “It’s no longer possible for them to continue to fight.”

Despite exuberant troops posting social media videos and selfies of retaken villages, Ukrainian military commanders are reluctant to broadcast their next moves.

“The winter will be a factor,” Sak said. “It could be slower, it could be faster depending on weather conditions. But we’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue our counteroffensive meter by meter, village by village.”

Departing Russian forces are laying mines and blowing up bridges as they pull back from Kherson city, and there is concern that some troops may be hiding in the city, waiting to spring a trap, Ukrainian officials said. Advancing Ukrainian soldiers also will be within range of Russian artillery on the opposite bank of the river.

But a full retreat from Kherson city is now seen as inevitable. Ukrainian forces have targeted Russian supply lines and choked off Moscow’s ability to support front-line troops.

“The Russians can definitely organize some traps in Kherson still, but they never had enough troops or logistics to keep those right-bank positions,” said another adviser to the Ukrainian government who was not authorized to speak to the press and commented on the condition of anonymity.

Ahead of Shoigu’s announcement, a NATO official said that Russian troops were in a “dire situation” in Kherson, with just one resupply line to the east.

The official, speaking on the 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 pulled more-experienced troops eastward across the river, troops mobilized more recently had been sent into the city, leaving the overall number of Russian forces there unchanged. NATO officials don’t understand why Russia’s military made that decision, the official said.

But just as the Dnieper River presented an obstacle for the Russians to resupply troops, Ukraine is not expected to easily be able to press east and south to Crimea from there. Instead, outside observers and Ukrainian officials said, Kyiv is likely to focus on interdicting remaining Russian supply lines from the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and then shift forces to contest other occupied territory.

“We have no geographical opportunity to liberate Crimea soon,” said the second Ukrainian adviser. “We need to liberate all of the south of the Ukraine first and we are not going to do that from the right bank of the river. We now have a left-bank theater, and all the activity will be on the left bank.”

Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general who has been closely tracking the war, said that the Ukrainian forces crossing the Dnieper would be a major operation and that the Russian military would inflict significant casualties on them if they do.

“I don’t see it in the short term,” said Ryan, who visited Ukrainian officials in Kyiv last month. “The Ukrainians are likely to look at other axes of advance to clear the south.”

Ryan said that Ukraine taking back Kherson city is “not a game changer” in its goal to retake Crimea but is a “step closer.” Seizing other parts of the Kherson region and neighboring Zaporizhzhia, to the east, must come first, he said.

“This will be a methodical and deliberate sequence of battles and campaigns in the south that should culminate in a campaign for Crimea,” Ryan said.

Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, also predicted that Ukrainian commanders may soon make a push on Zaporizhzhia, home to a nuclear plant seized by Russian troops. Sabotaging access to electricity ahead of the harsh winter has been a key strategy for Moscow, Hodges said, and taking back control could be a priority.

Hodges said that there have been reports of Russian commanders swapping out battle-hardened troops for freshly mobilized soldiers in the south as Moscow beefs up lines of defense beyond the river. While it makes tactical sense to force Ukraine to cross the river to advance, poorly trained and equipped conscripts could struggle to do so, he said.

Hodges predicted that Ukraine may be able to retake Crimea by the end of next summer. But that mission would be easier with long-range artillery that the United States has so far withheld from Ukraine, he said.

The United States has provided rocket artillery with a range of about 50 miles, which puts Crimea still out of reach from Kherson, Hodges said. For months, Kyiv has asked for U.S. rockets 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 declined to send them, seeing it as an escalation that could provoke Moscow.

The winter months could come with additional hardships 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 see those issues become worse.

“I would hate to be a Russian soldier sitting in a trench in southern Ukraine,” Hodges said. “This is another example of them trading bodies for time.”

Soldiers with poor discipline may find it hard to endure freezing sentry duty, leaving gaps in security for Ukrainian forces to exploit, said Rob Lee, an expert on the Russian military and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Another challenge for both sides will be limiting how much the cold reveals their positions. Vehicles and people produce thermal energy detectable with infrared scopes hand-carried by soldiers and mounted on some drones and vehicles.

Winter also will reduce the amount of overhead concealment, with leafless trees providing little cover. Even a generator concealed in a trench will emit heat that will help identify targets for an artillery strike, Lee said.

Meanwhile, Russian mercenary forces have built elaborate trench lines in southern Ukraine, studded with concrete antitank pyramid obstacles nicknamed “dragon’s teeth.” The move could be a public-relations stunt, Lee said, or it could be a hard lesson learned from Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces steamrolled unfortified Russian lines.

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

Sly reported from Kyiv and Miller from the Mykolaiv region.

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