Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets soldiers during a visit at a military training centre of the Western Military District for mobilised reservists, outside the town of Ryazan on October 20, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev | Afp | Getty Images
As Russia’s military commanders announced another major withdrawal in Ukraine, pro-Kremlin commentators have described the retreat as a humiliating and significant defeat for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin.
Putin kept a low profile as Russia announced Wednesday it was withdrawing its troops from the tentatively occupied city of Kherson and the west bank of the Dnieper River, which bisects the Kherson region in southern Ukraine. The military said it could no longer supply its troops there and was worried about the safety of its military personnel.
It comes after Putin in September hailed the annexation of Kherson, following a sham referendum in the region, saying its residents were “becoming our citizens forever.”
Just six weeks later — during which time Russia evacuated thousands of Kherson’s residents to Russian territory, a move Ukraine decried as deportation — and Putin’s words ring hollow.
News of the withdrawal appears to have surprised even the staunchest pro-Kremlin supporters, with pro-war Russian bloggers describing it as a massive blow to the Kremlin’s so-called special military operation, and questioning the decision-making of the country’s political elite.
Pro-war faction angry
As news of the withdrawal emerged, Putin supporter and former advisor Sergei Markov likened the withdrawal to a defeat on the scale of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Addressing his thousands of followers on Telegram, Markov said that “the surrender of Kherson is the largest geopolitical defeat of Russia since the collapse of the USSR” and warned that “the political consequences of this huge defeat will be really big.”
Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin journalist and politician Andrey Medvedev said on Telegram: “What now to say about Kherson? Yes, I’m not happy either, like many of you. Yes, I also thought that there would be a different solution. That a fortified area would be made from the city.”
“You can turn the city into a large fortification, while having difficulties with logistics. You can even defend it,” he said.
Medvedev added that the decision to withdraw would not have been made without the approval of the Putin. “I don’t really like the solution but we are at war and the decision of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief in such a situation cannot be challenged.”
Ukrainian Armed Forces’ military mobility continue toward Kherson front in Ukraine on November 9, 2022. Ukrainian army continue to support its units in Kherson as Russia-Ukraine war continues.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
The withdrawal from Kherson was announced soon after news emerged from the region that the Russian-installed deputy governor of Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, had been killed in a car crash.
Medvedev said that both events represented a serious propaganda blow for Russia and a boon for Ukraine.
“The departure from Kherson, especially against the backdrop of the tragic death of Kirill Stemnousov, is a serious information blow to us. And now the West and Kyiv will begin to unwind [it] as an unconditional victory for Ukraine,” he said, adding that people wanted an explanation for the withdrawal.
The Kremlin likely expected a backlash against the Kherson withdrawal; Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who publicly approved the withdrawal yesterday, has come in for repeated criticism over Russia’s military strategy and tactics in Ukraine.
Russia has already experienced humiliations on the battlefield, withdrawing from the north, and capital Kyiv, early on in the war, and then from Kharkiv in the northeast following a massive Ukrainian counteroffensive. It also retreated from Snake Island, a strategic outpost in the Black Sea, in what it described as a “gesture of goodwill.”
It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that Putin — the “supreme commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces” — was nowhere to be seen as a grim-faced Shoigu, along with Russia’s commander on the ground in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, announced the withdrawal from Kherson in a televised conversation.
Surovikin said it was no longer possible to keep supplying the city and claimed, without presenting evidence, that Ukraine was planning on attacking the nearby Kakhovka dam, which he said would cause mass flooding and civilian casualties. He suggested Russian troops be pulled back to the left bank of the river where they could “take up defensive positions.”
Shoigu approved, ordering Surovikin to “start withdrawing the troops and take all measures to ensure the safe relocation of the personnel, armaments and hardware behind the Dnipro [river]. For us, the life and health of Russian servicemen is always a priority. We must also take into account the threat for the civilian population,” according to comments reported by Russian state news agencies.
Surovikin acknowledged the “very uneasy decision” Shoigu had to make in ordering the withdrawal, but said it would allow Russia’s forces to be redeployed for “offensives in other directions in the zone of the operation.”
Kyiv has repeatedly rejected claims that it is planning to attack the Kakhovka dam, saying Russia was planning a false flag operation to attack the dam itself. Defense analysts, meanwhile, said Moscow was looking for an excuse to withdraw from a large part of Kherson.
Russian journalists expressed dismay at the news, with Alexander Kots saying on Twitter that: “You will agree that there is not much [good news] from any direction.”
Another, Konstantin Semin, told his followers on Telegram that they should “get ready” for the excuses behind the withdrawal, saying: “Now you will be convincingly told about the indisputable advantages of the decisions that have been made.”
Ukraine was cautious following news of the retreat, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warning that war required people to remain unemotional.
His advisor Mikhailo Podolyak also summed up concerns that the withdrawal could be a feint, designed to lure Ukrainian forces into a trap.
It remains to be seen whether the withdrawal is entirely genuine although analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said Wednesday that it’s unlikely to be a trap, noting that the “ISW has previously observed many indicators that Russian forces, military and economic assets, and occupation elements have steadily withdrawn from the west bank across the Dnipro River, and Russian officials have been anticipating and preparing for withdrawal in a way that is incompatible with a campaign to deceive and trap Ukrainian troops.”
Now, both the Russian forces that have to withdraw, and the Ukrainian forces that want to re-occupy, face difficulties.
Russian forces were reportedly blowing up bridges in Kherson on Wednesday, and possibly laying land mines in an effort to slow any Ukrainian advance. They will also likely have to withdraw while coming under fire from Ukraine.