Kherson’s surrender without a fight last week was a huge blow to both Vladimir V. Putin’s reputation and Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. This debacle stands in stark contrast to a situation during World War Two, when Russian soldiers fought with their backs to a mighty river with no bridges. For Kherson and the Dnieper read Stalingrad and the Volga. This is where similarities end. Putin is no Stalin, his circle of trusted cronies is no Stavka, and the Russian soldier of today is no match for his great-grandfather of 1942.
In all likelihood, this decision was made a month ago, immediately after the referendum on unification with the Russian Federation. In early October, Governor Vladimir Salydo suddenly ordered the evacuation of all civilian settlements from the right bank of the Dnieper River. This was followed by General Sergei Surovikin’s first address after assuming command of Russian forces, in which he called on the citizens to prepare “for the most difficult possible solutions” regarding Kherson.
The abandonment of Kherson, the only regional center that Russia managed to capture in more than eight months of fighting, may further undermine the Russian army’s morale. General Surovikin, explaining his decision, stated that the Ukrainian army “from the beginning of August to the end of October lost over 9,500 soldiers on the Kherson front” and that those losses were “seven to eight times greater” than those suffered by the Russian army. Surovikin thereby admitted that over a thousand Russian soldiers died in vain.
This setback, the latest of many (the retreat from the suburbs of Kiev, the sinking of the Moskva, the protracted agony of Mariupol, the rout at Izyum) seems to confirm that Putin lacks a coherent strategy. The shock in Russia is profound, and the criticism of Putin’s “special operation” can no longer be suppressed. Military commentator Yuri Kotenok, writing for the popular portal PolitNavigator one day before the Ukrainian forces entered Kherson, pointed out that the city was formally admitted into the Russian Federation just weeks earlier. “This decision is shocking for the thousands of people who fight and die for Russia,” wrote Kotanok. “This decision is unquestionably political, not military. It is sent to the court of history, and only time will tell how it will be judged in these times hostile to our future and identity.”
“The surrender of Kherson is Russia’s biggest geopolitical defeat since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” opined political scientist Sergey Markov on the same site. “The main reason for this defeat is the rejection of a real war and the catastrophic delay in making the needed decisions.” The political reason for the surrender of Kherson, in Markov’s opinion, is that the United States had promised to start negotiations and conclude a non-humiliating armistice which does not look like Russia’s surrender. In brief this means that Putin has accepted “the Sullivan plan.”
There were no rationally explicable reasons for surrendering Kherson, Russia’s military expert Vladimir Orlov argues. “If someone tries to explain to me how the withdrawal of troops from a higher [western] bank to a lower [eastern] one will help protect those troops from floods if the Ukrainians blow up the dam, and that explanation is logical, then I have a rich prize in store.” Orlov’s verdict is damning for Putin and his advisors:
What will happen? Firstly, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will process the entire population that remained there, people who simply did not want to leave there due to various circumstances… There are many people there who simply do not want to leave their homes, but at the same time sympathize with Russia, some even received Russian passports, and, of course, they will now have difficulties…”
The Armed Forces of Ukraine, Orlov observes, previously had the ability to penetrate 100 kilometers (60 miles) into Russian defenses. The range has increased to twice that distance now. There will be no return to Kherson, Orlov insists:
Next time this will not work, because now the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the right – higher bank will deploy their echeloned defense, which will be backed up by high-precision Western weapons…. And if the Armed Forces of Ukraine blow up the dam, they will flood all our positions to which we retreated, and nothing will be flooded on the right bank.
There was no military need to leave the Kherson bridgehead, Orlov concludes. “Unfortunately, we all depend on the political decisions that are made by our political leadership. Wars are not won on the defensive… The withdrawal took place barely a month after this region was annexed to the Russian Federation with great publicity and concerts on the Red Square.”
Larisa Shesler, who leads the Union of Political Emigrants and Political Prisoners of Ukraine in Moscow, believes that this is outright treason: “How does surrendering Russian territory without resistance correlate with the Constitution? Should we expect a report on the futility of holding the Kuril Islands?” The citizens of four regions of Ukraine who voted for unification with Russia in September now have reason to fear that they, too, may be surrendered with equal nonchalance.
The former head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Konstantin Dolgov, was equally despondent: “Kiev is expanding during the onset of frost, our generals are doing nothing – just as they had been doing nothing during these seven years since Minsk 2. New ‘difficult decisions’ will follow.”
It is dawning on many Russians that their country is unlikely to win this war, because “winning” would demand reaching the borders of such NATO members as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. The Zelensky government wins by not losing. If Russia could not defend the only major city and regional capital it has captured in almost eight months of fighting, six weeks after mobilizing 300,000 men, it is hard to imagine Putin turning the tables in 2023.
Economically Russia is in a precarious state and growing ever more dependent on China. Just before the Great War, in 1913, the Russian Empire was the fourth biggest economy in the world, behind America, Germany, and Britain, and ahead of France, Austria-Hungary, and Japan. Today, Russia is nowhere near that position, if we take energy and raw materials out of the equation. The Russian share of the global economy has declined from two percent when Putin came to power to a paltry 1.5 percent today, almost 23 years later.
With the outlook in Ukraine increasingly grim, Putin needs to move audaciously to stay in power. Whether he can do so is unclear: charting a new course would require the proclamation of national mobilization and a purge of close advisors. Putin is unlikely to do that because he is the creator of the system which rewards loyalty over talent, as exemplified by his choice of his chief spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Putin also fears that an all-out mobilization would fatally erode his popularity. If the first anniversary of the “special military operation” takes place on February 24, 2023, with no visible improvement in the military situation, Putin’s ability to remain in power will grow even more precarious.