Written by – Elijah J. Magnier:
“Ukraine has the momentum, but Russia is far from giving up.” This is what the British Minister of Defence,Ben Wallace, stated following the retreat of the Russian army from the west bank of Kherson. There is no doubt that the withdrawal of a superpower army from the capital of Kherson is considered a significant loss and an insult for them – even if Russia is fighting forty countries united in a military operations room which directs the war at the US base in Ramstein, Germany. Moreover, the withdrawal took place a week after President Vladimir Putin declared the region of Kherson to be part of Russia. However, the exit from the west bank of the Dnipro River to the most significant side of Kherson province on the east bank allowed Russia to fortify its hold on all occupied territories. It could also pave the road to a ceasefire negotiation. Washington needs to consolidate its military gains before heading for the negotiating table and insisting on a cessation of hostilities.
The US is already discussing negotiation plans after realising that it has set a trap for Russia but fell into it with its western allies. Russia is not deterred and uses around 20 per cent of its professional military personnel (1.1 million men). It recruited additional mobilised forces and is keeping the rest of the army for a potential wider war against NATO. The Russian human losses in the Ukrainian battlefield were rebuilt by a new wave of mobilisation, not by the professional army. The Kremlin is busy rebuilding a modern military to meet the western armies’ weapons and tactics and ramp up the production of more advanced drones, missiles and all guns. This war seems necessary and valuable to the Kremlin on many levels, including refurbishing the army that has not been confronted with a unique experience for decades, meeting the new warfare challenges, and drawing lessons from the last nine months of war against NATO fighting tactics in Ukraine.
There is no doubt that both Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin made wrong assessments at the beginning of the confrontation in Ukraine and how it would develop and how it will end. The US administration was looking forward to seeing Russia involved in a long quagmire in Ukraine similar to the Soviet in Afghanistan in 1979 and was confident Moscow would be defeated. This is what a NATO and an EU member state, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban revealed, saying that the US believed Putin would be overthrown and Russia’s economy would be destroyed due to western sanctions and its role in Ukraine. Biden’s expectations are far from being met, and the EU/US sanctions are “not changing the course of the war, and the Ukrainians will not come out victorious”. However, the US has managed to sell its gas four times the market price, NATO nations have become unified, and most of the EU nations are behind the US. All these are undoubtedly significant achievements, but for how long?
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On the other hand, Russia made severe mistakes from the beginning of the war, thinking that Europe was divided, that Ukraine won’t fight and would behave as in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and expected that Kyiv would declare neutrality. After all, Crimea was dominated by pro-Russian solid sentiments and culture, and only 18 per cent were native Ukrainian. According to the Ministry of Education of Crimea, in 2008, there were 555 schools with Russian as the language of instruction on the peninsula, and between 6 and 15 schools where teaching is in Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar.
President Putin probably thought that having trails of 64 km long tanks, dozens of kilometres away from Kyiv (in Ozera and Hostomel, north of the capital), was perhaps sufficient to menace the government and intimidate it to sign a neutrality deal. The long Russian military convoy was subject to easy harassment by the Ukrainian forces equipped with NATO anti-tank laser-guided missiles that caused severe damage to the static troops after destroying most of its revitalisation supply line in the rear.
Russia wanted Ukraine to avoid joining NATO, for the Ukrainian army to end its killing of Donbas Russian speakers, for the right of linguistic self-determination and for the OSCE to supervise elections as decided in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk-1 and two agreements. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy feared the backlash of the far-right nationalist political parties if his government implemented the deal and rejected the Minsk agreements just before the beginning of the war, challenging Russia.
The Kremlin failed to realise that the US has been training the Ukrainians since 2015 for the day they would fight the Russian army, and it won’t allow Kyiv to surrender. On the contrary, the US succeeded in encouraging Ukraine to fight to the last Ukrainian regardless of the heavy casualties of men and infrastructure.
In February, most foreign embassies evacuated Kyiv, thinking that Russia would behave exactly as the US acted in Iraq (and other wars), raining missiles on the capital and destroying the country before pushing forward the infantry. Moscow believed it was unnecessary to imitate the American war style, and the family link between Ukraine and Russia was taken into consideration. That turned out to be a substantial Russian erroneous evaluation. Also, once engaged in the war, Russia showed it lacked the conventional military capabilities to occupy all of Ukraine even if 20 per cent of the country was already under the Moscow army’s control against the entire NATO war machine.
There is no doubt that the Russian army was not up to the ambitions and objectives of President Putin and that waging a classic war against the assembled NATO armies in a classical battle is doomed to fail. The first few months of fighting in Ukraine forced the Kremlin to revolutionise its army and equipment to take the modern warfare road, pushing President Putin to change military tactics and reduce its goals and expectations.
Indeed, in recent weeks, Russia changed its military doctrine toward Ukraine and is adopting a heavier military approach after taking the gloves off. The Russian decision to destroy thus far more than half of the Ukrainian infrastructure with long-range precision missiles and its withdrawal from the Kherson capital saved thousands of Russian soldiers from potential defeat. It has also provided a window of opportunity to stop the war, or at least prepare the circumstances to reach a cessation of hostility between the US and Russia, signed by Ukraine. Indeed, US leaders began to call for negotiations since the possibility of breaking Russian defences or preventing Moscow from achieving most of its goals was no longer possible.
In Kherson, the Ukrainian army posed no immediate threat to the Russian military on the west bank of the Dnipro. Oleksiy Arestovych, the Ukrainian advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, doubted Russia’s withdrawal intentions, especially since their defence lines were still intact. Also, Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defence minister, said that “Russia needed at least a week to withdraw 40,000 troops and equipment” from the west bank of the vast Dnipro River. But the Kremlin completed its withdrawal in just 48 hours, surprising all those who treated rapid developments with caution for fear of falling into a Russian trap in Kherson city.
In military science, holding the ground at the cost of taking heavy casualties is not a smart option for military leaders. During the first weeks of the battle, Russian forces withdrew from around Kyiv and, a few months later, from Kharkiv. Therefore, it is not surprising for the Kremlin to regroup the army on the east bank of the Dnipro River without military pressure during the withdrawal because it offers various future and strategic defensive perspectives for Moscow.
The retreat resulted from a military assessment by field commanders, followed by the approval of the top political decision-maker, President Putin. The potential loss of many men on the battlefield and the possibility of persuading the US to stop the war if withdrawing from the capital of Kherson and building a robust defence line on the east bank were enough to order and execute the withdrawal.
Ukrainian forces could have hit the supply lines crossing the bridge connecting the western and eastern banks, putting more than 30,000 Russian troops in danger of being cut off if Ukraine decided to push its forces to the front in time. Besieging thousands of soldiers and exposing them to death or surrender would be a strategic loss that could topple the entire military and political leadership, including President Putin.
The west bank is located on the lower Dnieper River and is more vulnerable to flooding. Had Ukraine decided to blow up the dam at the Kakhovka power plant – which suffered losses from the Ukrainian army’s precise American-made HIMARS launchers – western Kherson would have sunk, along with 80 settlements. In such a scenario, the movement of thirty thousand Russian soldiers inside the province would have been impossible to sustain any significant Ukrainian frontal attack.
As for after completing the Russian withdrawal, the Ukrainian forces who deployed their men inside Kherson city walked “inside the trap” that the Kremlin army stepped out off. Therefore, any risk of a future significant attack decided by Kyiv towards the eastern bank would expose it to destruction or flooding- depending on the scale of the attack. Thus, the natural line of defence – the Dnipro River – provides the Russian army with a self-protective guarantee that is difficult for the Ukrainians to cross without being seen, draws new borders, and sends messages to the West that any future battle to liberate other Russian-occupied territories has become futile.
Russia retained most of eastern Kherson, three times the area from which Russian forces withdrew, to remain an impregnable barrier that protects the Crimean Peninsula, which President Zelensky promised to liberate. Moscow is also maintaining control of the Sea of Azov and securing the flow of fresh waters to Crimea and other areas under its influence.
President Joe Biden was right when he said that Russia hasn’t accomplished what it wanted to achieve. This is why Putin changed his objectives to limit his war and accepted to keep control of Donbas, Zaporizhia and most of Kherson.
Russia’s strategy became defensive in Kherson and offensive in other areas, employing surplus forces withdrawing from Kherson to complete control of the whole of Donbas and investing it in an attack in the Luhansk regions, where the fighting escalated.
The Kremlin opted to consolidate acquired positions, avoiding exhausting its army and draining the West’s capabilities. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “The West seems to be attacking Russia endlessly.” But western military leaders started to complain, raising their voices because they were running out of weapons to send to Ukraine and due to the severe degree of inflation.
Also, the US administration revealed a difference of opinion between the commander of US forces, General Mark Milley, who advised to use diplomacy, while Secretary of State Anthony Bliken and National security adviser Jack Sullivan disagreed. This indicates that from a military point of view, there is no longer the hope of draining the Russian economy or defeating its soldiers on the battlefield.
Therefore, from a western perspective, the battle must be stopped before the collateral damage increases (not defeating Russia and Moscow delivering lethal weapons – hypersonic missiles – to Iran, the US’s enemy). Consequently, Washington may no longer remain in control of its allies’ reactions due to the movements on the streets of Europe, which are demanding a stop to rising prices, the end of the war in Ukraine, and for its leaders to promote diplomatic negotiations.
No matter what the Ukrainian army’s tactical victories are on the ground, the war won’t stop if diplomacy is not the choice of the principal belligerents. Battlefields in any war have always been unstable and are only used to improve the negotiation of one side or another. The US failed to drain Russia’s economy and overthrow President Putin. Instead, the war has exhausted the West, which expected to drag Russia into the Ukrainian trap and failed to predict the boomerang effect hitting western populations. Therefore, the battle in Ukraine has become horizonless, especially since winter is fast approaching, and Moscow will not abandon its goals or the entire 100,000 sqkm it occupies.
Russia is still holding its ground, engaged in fierce battles on various fronts and bombing Ukraine weekly with hundreds of long-range precision missiles, shelling and destroying the Ukrainian infrastructure. The value of the damage to the infrastructure amounts to 750 billion dollars so far and will not be limited to this sum if the war continues.
No matter how long the war lasts, the negotiating table will decide the end of the battle. The problem is, who will announce its loss first: the US or Europe? Russia controls 100,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory and will not come out as the loser. Russia has defied the US’s unilateralism that has been challenged, and other countries will now have more courage to defy Washington. The process is no longer stoppable. India and Pakistan, to name a few, rejected the US and EU unilateral sanctions on Russia’s energy. Two-thirds of the world refuse to stand behind Washington in its fight against Russia. The final result of this battle will have dire consequences for the loser between the two superpower nations. However, in this process, Ukrainians are undoubtedly the biggest victims and losers.
Proofread by: Maurice Brasher