To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, the Russian military lost the city of Kherson in two ways: gradually, then suddenly.
Kherson was the first major city the Russians captured in the early days in the war and, in the eight months since, the only provincial capital. It was also one of the places Russian President Vladimir Putin formally — and illegally — annexed in late September. In a Kremlin celebration of the annexations, Putin declared that Kherson and the three other Ukrainian regions would be Russian “forever.” Billboards went up in Kherson itself, messages that boasted the same: “Russia is here forever.”
Forever — in the case of Kherson — lasted about six weeks.
Ukrainian forces began limited counteroffensives aimed at the Kherson region as early as last May, and in the summer, they began using newly acquired rocket systems to try to cut off Russian forces in the region from resupply routes. The large-scale Ukrainian offensive to liberate Kherson officially began at the beginning of September, though for weeks, progress was slow, and each inch of ground came with heavy casualties for the Ukrainian side.
So in one sense, this weeks’ victory has been a long time coming.
But the pace of developments in recent days has been stunning. When Russia began evacuating civilians from Kherson in mid-October, it looked like preparation for a long, hard-fought battle. “This was not a good sign,” Viktoriia Novytska, a Ukrainian journalist from Kherson who evacuated to western Ukraine in the early days of the war, told Grid in an interview early this week. She said the civilians who had remained in the city were “waiting for a miracle.”
Even after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergey Surovikin, ordered the withdrawal of Russian forces from the city, Ukrainian officials reacted with skepticism. On Wednesday, Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior Ukrainian presidential adviser, dismissed what he called “staged TV statements” and said, “We see no sign that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight.” He added: “Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal.”
But within hours, Ukrainian troops were moving quickly through the outskirts of Kherson, encountering little resistance. On Friday morning, Ukrainian forces entered the city, and the Ukrainian flag was, indeed, flying in Kherson’s main city square.
Ukrainian and Russian accounts differ as to whether Russian troops completed an orderly withdrawal from Kherson or beat a chaotic retreat during which equipment was abandoned and soldiers drowned in the Dnieper River. Ukrainian officials also warned that some troops may have stayed behind in civilian clothes to carry out sabotage operations. Either way, it appears that Kherson has been taken almost without a fight within the city itself.
Franz-Stefan Gady, a military analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Grid he was “genuinely surprised by the speed of the Russian withdrawal.”
A significant prize
The strategic and symbolic significance of this Russian defeat rivals — and arguably exceeds — that of the two other major setbacks the invaders have suffered in this war: the withdrawal from Kyiv last spring and from the eastern region of Kharkiv in September.
Kherson is a port city on the delta of the Dnieper River and therefore a major target in Russia’s goal of controlling Ukraine’s southern coast. The Kherson region links mainland Ukraine to Russian-annexed Crimea, and its reservoirs and power stations could potentially sustain the Crimean Peninsula, which has been cut off from the Ukrainian grid since 2014.
As a symbol, the loss of Kherson is an obvious blow to the Russians. From a strategic perspective, it means that Russian hopes of building a “land bridge” to Crimea are looking dicier today — and Ukraine’s own ultimate war aim of retaking the peninsula suddenly looks less fanciful.
When war narratives collapse: the news from Russia
Not surprisingly, the news from Kherson has landed like a thud in Russia itself — as much if not more so than those prior setbacks in Kyiv and Kharkiv. What’s more of a surprise is the apparent disarray in terms of the rhetorical response. In the wake of Kherson, the Russian media narratives, which so often operate in the lockstep of one-view propaganda, are now all over the map.
Two of the most high-profile figures in the Russian media and the war itself — the Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov — took pains to say the retreat from Kherson made sense.
“The decision taken by Surovikin is not easy, but he acted like a man who is not afraid of responsibility,” said Prigozhin. “He did it in an organized manner, without fear, taking upon himself the fullness of the decision-making.”
Kadyrov, communicating via his Telegram channel, said that Surovikin had “saved a thousand soldiers” who were surrounded.
“After weighing all the pros and cons, General Surovikin made a difficult but right choice,” Kadyrov wrote, “between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers.”
Other prominent voices have been far less charitable. A video in which Shoigu was seen ordering the Kherson withdrawal — and which was shown on Russian television and posted on pro-Kremlin Telegram channels — drew ridicule from opponents of the war and a tsunami of indignant reaction from its active supporters.
On one of the main Kremlin propaganda platforms — the telegram channel of RT chief Margarita Simonyan — the comments were blistering:
“They handed over the territory of the Russian Federation! It’s treason.”
“What kind of bulls--- are you feeding us with? From the very beginning, so many guys have already been laid down — for what? You take people for idiots. The most vile situation in the history of Russia.”
“We are waiting for the surrender of Moscow now.”
Simonyan herself, a leading propagandist for Putin, tried to justify the withdrawal by comparing it the Russian war of 1812, in which the famed Russian commander Mikhail Kutuzov surrendered Moscow to Napoleon’s army and later won the war.
Simonyan quoted Kutuzov in her post: “As long as the army is intact, there is hope to end the war with honor. With the loss of the army, not only Moscow — all of Russia would be lost.”
That argument didn’t go over well either.
From one post: “Do you yourself believe that? I’ll just remind you that after Moscow, Napoleon had to retreat in the cold along the road he had plundered, do you really believe that the same scenario is in play here?”
Then there was the talk show host Andrei Norkin, another prominent pro-war figure, whose response to the news referred to the Russian Criminal Code, which punishes any prognosticating about the collapse of the Russian Federation and any discrediting of the Russian armed forces. On the Friday edition of his show, Norkin opened this way:
“I won’t tell you what I think of [the surrender of Kherson], and I will explain why. If I support this decision and say that the Ministry of Defense is doing the right thing by leaving Kherson, then that can be seen as a public call to violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, and in our criminal code, this is Article 280, part one. I specifically checked this morning, several years in prison.
“If I do not support this decision and I think that the Ministry of Defense did the wrong thing by leaving Kherson, then these are public actions aimed at discrediting the armed forces, the same article 280, part 3, and the term of imprisonment is approximately the same.
“I don’t want to go to jail, so now we will watch, and then we will give the floor to our respected experts.”
As it happened, many of the “experts” — Russian political scientists, military observers and politicians — appeared unsure what to make of the debacle at Kherson.
The closest to a Kremlin narrative was that what happened in Kherson was just a maneuver, something temporary.
For his part, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that the retreat had changed nothing in terms of the status of Kherson as Russian territory. “It is legally fixed and defined,” he said. “There can be no changes.”
Asked whether the Kremlin had been humiliated by the withdrawal, Peskov said only, “The special military operation continues.”
There was no word from Putin himself.
The way forward
Kherson’s fall doesn’t mean the war is about to end. Russia’s forces have withdrawn to the eastern side of the Dnieper, where it is much easier to supply them and where their position is more secure. In the course of the withdrawal, the Russians appear to have completely destroyed the Antonovsky Bridge, the main crossing over the river. The hope, in Moscow, is that newly arrived troops from Russia’s recent mobilization will bolster the front lines, and that the pace of combat will slow over the winter. This will allow time for the Russian war effort to regroup and — they hope — for Ukraine’s Western backers to lose interest in the conflict.
It could work, though little in this war so far has given much cause for confidence in the Russian military or political leadership’s long-term planning.
Meanwhile, for all the jubilation among Ukraine and its international backers, Kherson’s fall will also make some nervous. Throughout the war, there have been fears among some Western officials that a full Russian military collapse will make the nuclear option more likely as a last resort for Putin.
For now, there’s no sugarcoating the story in Russia. The Russian tricolor is coming down in Kherson. The “forever” billboards are being defaced. And all those commentators are wringing their collective hands.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.