The expected withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson paves the way for even greater advances for Ukraine's defenders, officials in Washington and Kyiv have said. But significant gains beyond that are unlikely to come anytime soon as winter sets in and both sides are beefing up combat units with additional weapons, ammunition and personnel, according to the Washington Post.
In the United States, it is believed that Moscow decided to retreat from the Ukrainian city in order to avoid the chaotic and bloody failure that befell the Russian army in the Kharkiv region. In September, Ukrainian forces broke through Russian front lines, regaining control over hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. In addition, they seized a large amount of hastily abandoned Russian military equipment. This time, the Russian retreat looks strategic. Troops withdraw to safer positions and prepare for future battle.
“Russia has realized that it is better for it to withdraw its troops earlier than to suffer heavy losses at the hands of the Ukrainians later. Ukraine will not stop until it fully regains control of the city. And right. It has great geographical, military and psychological value”, — said former NATO commander-in-chief Admiral James Stavridis.
He believes Ukraine will reassemble abandoned Russian equipment that the Ukrainian military can use, as well as expose new evidence of Russian war crimes. In the Nikolaev region, Ukrainian medic Ivan Malyny said that his unit was clearing mines. This may give an understanding that Ukrainian forces are waiting in Kherson.
“Now we ourselves do not understand where the front is, where the second line is, or something else. We just know they're gone. It is not yet clear where they went and what they left behind”, — said Little.
The head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said on Tuesday evening that 20-30 thousand Russian soldiers remained on the right bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson region. And their withdrawal to the left bank will take some time. However, he added that there were “early signs” that the retreat had already begun.
“This will not take a day or two. It may be weeks before the troops can be withdrawn across the river”, — Millie said.
The offensive of the Ukrainian army in the direction of Kherson lasted for weeks. At the same time, Russian ammunition depots, command centers and logistics were destroyed in order to put pressure on Russian forces, — explained adviser to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine Yuriy Sak. Despite soldiers posting videos and selfies from recaptured villages on social media, Ukrainian commanders refuse to talk about next steps.
“Winter will be a factor. Everything can happen more slowly, or maybe faster, depending on the weather conditions. But we are not going to stop. We will continue our counteroffensive meter by meter, village by village”, — said Sak.
Retreating, Russian troops lay mines and blow up bridges. There is also a suspicion that many soldiers may be hiding in Kherson, trying to ambush. Also, the Ukrainian military will be in the zone of action of enemy artillery deployed on the other side of the Dnieper. But a complete Russian retreat from Kherson is now considered inevitable. Ukrainian forces have strangled Russian supply lines, so Moscow can no longer support its troops on this sector of the front.
“The Russians can definitely set up some kind of trap in Kherson. But they never had enough troops or logistical capacity to maintain positions on the right bank,” an unnamed Ukrainian government adviser said.
Even before Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu gave the order to retreat from Kherson, an unnamed NATO official said Russian troops in the city were in a “very difficult situation.” And that they had only one supply line left in the east. He also said that although Russia began to withdraw the most valuable forces from Kherson beyond the Dnieper, the recently mobilized soldiers, on the contrary, were sent to the city. Therefore, the number of the Russian contingent in Kherson remained unchanged. NATO does not understand why Russia is doing this.
However, the Dnieper is not only an obstacle to Russian supply lines. The river will also become an obstacle that will prevent Ukrainian troops from moving south into Crimea. Outside observers expect Kyiv to focus on destroying those supply lines from the occupied peninsula that still remain in Russia.
“We do not have a geographical opportunity to liberate Crimea in the near future. We must first liberate the entire south of Ukraine, and we will not be able to do this from the right bank. Now we have a theater of operations on the left bank. And all activity will be there”, — said another unnamed Ukrainian government adviser.
Retired Australian Army General Mick Ryan explained that forcing the Dnieper would be a very serious operation for the Ukrainian army. And Russian forces could inflict heavy casualties on Ukrainian forces if they attempted to do so.
«I don't see the possibility of such an operation in the short term. The Ukrainians are likely to focus on other axes of advance to clear the south,” he said.
General Ryan also added that the liberation of Kherson “changes little” in terms of the goals of returning Crimea. However, Kyiv is now “one step closer” to this goal. In his opinion, the liberation of other parts of the Kherson and neighboring Zaporozhye regions should take place first.
«It will be a methodical and deliberate sequence of battles and campaigns in the south, culminating in a campaign in the Crimea& #187;, — forecasts the Australian military.
Former commander of the US Army in Europe, Ben Hodges, also predicted that Ukrainian forces could launch an offensive on Zaporozhye, where a nuclear power plant seized by Russian troops is located. Sabotaging access to power generation facilities before the harsh winter has become a key strategy for Moscow, Hodges explained. Therefore, the return of control over the nuclear power plant may become a priority.
Hodges recalled reports of Russian commanders replacing battle-hardened soldiers with freshly mobilized ones as Moscow tries to reinforce its line of defense across the Dnieper. The US military explained that from a tactical point of view, it makes sense to try to get Ukraine to cross the river to go on the offensive. But poorly trained and well-off conscripts are unlikely to be able to do this. Hodges believes that Ukraine will be able to return the Crimea before the end of next summer. But it would be easier to achieve this if the Ukrainian army had long-range missiles. The United States has so far refused to provide Kyiv with such weapons.
The winter months can also bring their own hardships to the battlefield. As temperatures drop below zero and war becomes a test of resilience and will, understrength and demoralized units may see these problems worsen significantly.
“I wouldn’t want to be in the place of the Russian soldier in a trench in southern Ukraine. This is another example of exchanging time for dead bodies,” Hodges said.
Foreign Policy Research Institute expert on the Russian military, Rob Lee, says undisciplined soldiers will find it difficult to serve in the cold. This will create security gaps that Ukrainian forces can exploit.
Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries have built elaborate lines of trenches in southern Ukraine, studded with concrete anti-tank pyramids they call “dragon's teeth.” According to Lee, this can only be a PR stunt. Or is it the conclusion that the Russians made after the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region. In any case, the front lines can again gain a foothold along the coast of the Dnieper. And during the winter, Russian and Ukrainian forces will bombard each other with artillery and cannons.