The colourful billboards erected by Russia’s occupying forces in the Ukrainian city of Kherson boasted that it would be a Russian city “forever”. In reality, that lasted just more than eight months.
Under sustained bombardment from a Ukrainian counter-offensive that started on August 29, Russian troops at risk of encirclement were ordered to withdraw from the city on Wednesday.
Their retreat marks a major victory for Kyiv in the battle for south-east Ukraine, one that robs Moscow of its biggest military achievement of the war and changes the calculus for both sides as the conflict heads into winter.
Ukrainian and western officials have speculated for weeks that a Russian withdrawal from the town, strategic for its proximity to Crimea, was imminent, and were quick to urge caution regarding the implications of Moscow’s retreat while playing down any hopes that it could spark a rapid advance.
But analysts said that control of the city would expand Kyiv’s options for inflicting greater damage on Russia’s diminished invasion aims and its ability to hold the territory it still controls.
“Kherson is important to both sides,” said one western intelligence official.
Even if Kherson is evacuated quickly, it is very unlikely to spark a rout of Russian lines. By retreating from the city, which sits on the northwestern (or right) bank of the Dnipro river close to its Black Sea delta, Russia aims to reinforce its defences on the other side of the river, where it has been building defensive lines for weeks, reinforced by natural defences such as canals and wet, marshy ground.
As such, western officials expect that while Ukraine will be able to recapture the Dnipro’s north-western bank by the end of November, Russia will be able to hold the other side.
Speaking at an event in New York, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley, estimated Russia had up to 30,000 troops north of the Dnipro in that area. “This is going to take them days and perhaps even weeks to pull those forces south of that river,” he said.
Aside from its symbolic value as the only provincial capital city captured by Russia in its more than eight-month-long invasion, Kherson has major worth as a strategic location from where Ukraine can recalibrate its counter-offensive.
The wider Kherson region links mainland Ukraine to the Russian-occupied peninsula of Crimea, and the city lies roughly 100km from the isthmus that provides Russia a narrow land corridor to resupply its troops from its large bases there.
That would put three important roads that lie on the land bridge and a number of Russian logistic sites and ammunition dumps within range of Ukraine’s western-supplied high-precision rocket system — threatening a critical supply route that has fuelled Russia’s war effort from the peninsula.
The Kherson province located on the right bank of the Dnipro river is “strategically important from a military standpoint as it gives us firepower control of the roads from Crimea used as supply lines by the Russians”, said Serhiy Kuzan, an adviser at Ukraine’s defence ministry. “It will be a very big blow to the Russian forces.”
That proximity to Crimea could also see Russia shift more forces south to protect the approach to the annexed peninsula, a territory that president Vladimir Putin could never countenance a retreat from: his most significant military conquest in his more than two-decade-long rule, Crimea is also home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Kherson, captured in March, “is the one objective that Russia achieved among all its plans”, said Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary. “And now they’ve given it up. Which must beg the question in the Kremlin: what was it all for, all those lost Russian lives?”
Military analysts said the way Russia is to withdraw will be key to Moscow’s longer-term prospects in south-east Ukraine. A Ukrainian counter-offensive in north-east Ukraine in September sparked a chaotic retreat, decimating Russia’s lines and military capacities.
“If Russia can withdraw its units without heavy losses, it will probably be in a stronger position to hold its existing front lines,” said Rob Lee, senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “That is why [how] the withdrawal is conducted is critical.”
Thursday’s development comes as the US assessed that both sides have sustained heavy losses. Milley said more than 100,000 Russian soldiers had been killed and wounded in Ukraine, with Kyiv likely suffered similar losses.
Ukraine has informed its allies that it plans to advance slowly and carefully as its troops move to retake Kherson, according to one western diplomat, wary of Russian troops who may remain in the city and the greater threat from the other bank of the river. Ukrainian officials urged caution on Wednesday over the reality of the Russian withdrawal, fearing a trap.
As he announced the planned retreat, Sergei Surovikin, appointed commander of Russia’s invasion force last month, claimed Russia had actually been successfully repelling Ukrainian attacks and inflicting significant losses on Kyiv’s troops.
Surovikin said the withdrawal would “free up forces and equipment that will be used to take actions, including of an offensive nature, in other areas where the operation is being conducted”.
Russian commanders “clearly took a decision that they wanted to remove themselves behind the natural border [of the river]”, said Wallace. “A perfectly logical measure.”
Kuzan said that while Russia has “already bade farewell to the city of Kherson as an administrative centre” having in past weeks evacuated its non-military staff and officials, it has simultaneously beefed up troop levels around the city and along the front lines on the west side of the Dnipro.
“Their best ground forces remained. But they moved their artillery on the east side of the Dnipro river, from where they can reach the front lines,” Kuzan said.
Even if the conflict in south-east Ukraine sinks into a stalemate over winter, as some western officials have suggested, Kherson’s recapture will give Kyiv leverage as it lobbies western governments to step up supplies of arms and ammunition, and financial support.
“It is encouraging to see how the brave Ukrainian forces are able to liberate more Ukrainian territory, the victories, the gains the Ukrainian armed forces are making belongs to the brave, courageous Ukrainian soldiers,” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. “But of course the support they receive from the United Kingdom, from Nato allies and partners is also essential . . . We will continue to support Ukraine.”
Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone in London and Max Seddon in Riga