Defense Minister of Russia Sergei Shoigu announced on November 9 that the Russian forces are retreating from Kherson city, the only regional capital to fall under Russian control since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. The announcement came as a major morale boost for the Ukrainian forces, who quickly took back control of the key southern city after the withdrawal of Russian troops. Apparently, the decision has been made by the Russian military command to “preserve lives of servicemen and combat readiness of forces.” However, the West perceives the move as a weakness of the thin-stretched Russian forces.
Kherson is a strategically and economically important city for Ukraine. The city is a major source of grain, vegetables, and fruits; hence, taking it back will also boost Ukraine’s agricultural economy. Moreover, Ukraine will be able to choke water supplies to Crimea after regaining control of the giant Nova Kakhovka dam, which serves as the water source for the peninsula.
Russian President Vladimir Putin formally announced the annexation of Kherson and two other regions in late September. Giving up a territory that had been formally, although not legally, annexed by Russia weakens Russian position in the war and signals weakness. It also points to the abruptness in the decision–making on the part of Russia. The retreat from Kherson makes the status of other annexed territories, including Crimea, questionable. Although Kremlin insists that Kherson remains part of Russia, verbal statements have little to do with reality. Russia has given up the launch pad for its offensive by withdrawing from the city.
The move is neither a peace offering nor does it signal Russia’s readiness for negotiation, as Russia will not want to negotiate from a position of weakness. The only possible justification for the pull-out, it seems, can be a strategic one. Apparently, Russia has realized that it has spread its resources too thin to sustain the invasion. Meanwhile, winters have further intensified the logistical challenge faced by the Russian war machine. The retreat might be aimed at regrouping Russian forces and taking a back foot for the winters, only to relaunch the offensive in Spring. On the other hand, Ukrainian forces seem determined more than ever to continue with the counter-offensive even during winters, as they are sufficiently supplied by NATO members, particularly the United States. By taking defensive positions, Russian forces will shift the pressure to the Ukrainian forces, which could be the real motive behind pulling out from Kherson.
Russia began the invasion of Ukraine in February with the expectation of running over the country in a matter of weeks at max. Kremlin miscalculated the war it was initiating as Russian troops faced unexpected resistance from Ukrainian forces. Ukraine’s counter-offensive was backed by unprecedented support from NATO member states for a non-NATO country. The alliance has played an instrumental role in the country’s defense against the Russian invasion. In this sense, it would be unfair to say that Russia is losing to Ukraine, as the superpower is actually up against the largest military alliance in the world.
The US provided billions of dollar worth of support to the Ukrainian military; meanwhile, other NATO members didn’t hold back. Ukraine enjoys complete backing from the West, from moral and political support to sophisticated weaponry. Nevertheless, neither Ukraine nor Russia can sustain the war for long, and the possible use of a nuclear bomb in case of further escalation threatens global peace and security. Both parties need to realize that the conflict requires a diplomatic approach for its solution. Immediate cessation of violence through a formal cease-fire agreement is the need of the time as it would create space for dialogue between the two adversaries. The West, led by the US, must also play its role in resolving the conflict instead of fueling it.