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Opinion Kherson’s fall is another triumph for Ukraine’s ‘thousand bee sting’ strategy

A Ukrainian tears down a billboard reading "Russia is here forever" in Kherson, Ukraine, on Monday. (AFP/Getty Images)

The liberation of Kherson on Friday is a joyous event that is rightly being celebrated as Ukraine’s third major victory of the war, after the battles of Kyiv and Kharkiv. It further validates the Ukrainian way of war and further undermines Russian pretensions to rule any part of Ukraine.

The city of Kherson, after all, is the capital of one of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin “annexed.” On Sept. 30, he proclaimed that these regions would be “Russian forever.” A mere 40 days later, the Russians pulled out of Kherson. Forever ain’t what it used to be.

What this shows is that not even Putin himself takes seriously the idea that Kherson was ever part of Russia. Can anyone imagine the Russian dictator pulling back so nonchalantly if the Ukrainians were on the outskirts of actual Russian cities such as Belgorod or Voronezh? Of course not. He would be telling his troops to fight to the last man and might even be using nuclear weapons. Whatever Putin says, the Kremlin is not treating the loss of Kherson as the loss of actual Russian territory.

The residents of Kherson certainly did not regard the departure of the Russian army and the arrival of the Ukrainians as cause for commiseration, even though they had supposedly voted to be part of Russia in a bogus referendum. Rather, they celebrated their liberation as though they were Parisians in 1944.

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Even during the dark days of the Russian occupation — whose full brutality is only now being revealed — the people of Kherson staunchly resisted attempts to turn them into Russians. The New York Times reported that teachers at one school ignored a new curriculum that involved memorizing the Russian anthem and instead discreetly greeted students every morning with “Glory to Ukraine!”

In short, Putin’s claims to rule Ukrainian territory are a sham. Like the French and Americans in Vietnam or the Soviets in Afghanistan, Russian soldiers control nothing beyond the range of their guns. They cannot win the support of the population, and their illegitimate occupation is unlikely to last long given their military ineptitude.

The retreat from Kherson was one of the more skillful maneuvers the Russian army has pulled off. They managed to avoid a slaughter as their troops were crossing the Dnieper River to the east bank. But, as Winston Churchill said after Dunkirk, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

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That the Ukrainians forced the Russians to retreat is further vindication of their “thousand bee sting” strategy — what the British strategist Basil Liddell Hart called “the indirect approach” and the retired Australian general Mick Ryan calls a strategy of “corrosion.” The Russians suffered massive casualties this summer in Donbas with World War I-style frontal assaults. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have minimized their own losses by focusing their firepower on logistical lines and command centers to erode the Russian ability to fight.

The star weapon in this campaign of attrition has been the U.S.-supplied HIMARS(High Mobility Artillery Rocket System). While HIMARS warheads are too small to destroy bridges, the Institute for the Study of War writes, the Ukrainians smartly used multiple strikes to render bridges across the Dnieper unusable — and then targeted the Russians as they attempted to repair the bridges or build pontoon replacements. With all but one of the bridges into Kherson disabled, the Russians had no choice but to evacuate if they did not want to risk having tens of thousands of soldiers cut off and captured.

The Ukrainians will now aim to use similar tactics to degrade the Russian garrisons in the rest of southern and eastern Ukraine — including in Mariupol, the only major city, aside from Kherson, captured since the start of this war. This will not be an easy task, because the Russian lines are now more compact and closer to supply depots in Russia proper and occupied Crimea. Ukraine cannot yet reach Crimea with HIMARS (the range is about 45 miles) and Washington will not allow HIMARS to be used on Russian soil.

The Ukrainians need longer-range weapons, but even without them, they cannot afford to pause for the winter as though they were George Washington’s army at Valley Forge. The Russians need time to train and equip the 300,000 conscripts they claim to have mobilized. The Ukrainians cannot give them the luxury to retrofit for a spring offensive. They will need to keep attacking despite the snow and cold.

Mechanized movement across frozen ground is actually easier than in the muddy conditions of late fall. But winter operations are still arduous and reward forces that have high morale — meaning they are willing to endure privations to prevail. Luckily, the Ukrainians, who are fighting to defend their homeland, have a decided advantage in this regard over the sullen and unmotivated Russian soldiers — just as the Finns did during the Winter War in 1939-1940.

Talk of a settlement appears, sadly, premature. A deal could be done tomorrow if Putin agrees to evacuate Ukrainian territory. But until he does, the war will grind on — with further Ukrainian victories likely.

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