Putin was convinced that it was necessary. What is the greatest danger surrounding the Russian retreat of from Kherson

November 10, 2022

I see two important aspects here. The first one is military. The second is political.

The news of the Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu's order to withdraw from Kherson did not come as a surprise to me. On the other hand, it was really a pleasant surprise. It was clear that Russia's chances of keeping the right-bank part of Ukraine were decreasing day by day, and this is not an opinion of a cheering patriot or propagandist, because it is next to impossible to keep such a contingent, estimated at around 40,000, with all the equipment and logistics needs, while the two supply channels are under the enemy fire. Therefore, the question was only "when", or "how Kherson will be liberated": will it be retaken, or the occupiers will flee Kherson.

Why did Russia delay this decision until now? This unfavourable situation was clear to them as soon as Ukraine started striking bridges with HIMARS.

There are two important aspects here, in my opinion. The first one is military. The second is political.

When Sergey Surovikin, as the newly appointed commander, spoke on October 18 about his readiness for "difficult decisions", he obviously had this in mind. But he, like any other Russian general, understood that he would not be allowed to do so without the go-ahead from the top. And it doesn't matter how he reasoned this retreat. Like any Russian general, he was afraid to tell Putin the truth. There is a Russian proverb about what happens to the one who brings bad news. Therefore, Surovikin tried to convey that a disaster awaited them on the right bank of the Dnieper in Kherson region, if they don’t decide to withdraw.

The political value of Kherson is absolutely obvious. Russia (Kremlin, Putin) put themselves in a situation that could not be worse by declaring this territory Russian. Which could be an even more painful blow to the image of this great macho, who in fact showed his weakness? It involves both political and personal risks for Putin as the head of state, who presented himself as a macho man who had everything under control.

In my opinion, either Evgeniy Prigozhin or Surovikin (by the way, there are rumours in Russian expert circles about agreements between Surovikin and Prigozhin), or both, might have convinced Putin that it was a necessary decision, and the political risks would be less catastrophic than if such a decision was not taken.

Here, perhaps, lies the greatest danger, because such a decision might go with something that obviously should stop this information wave "everything is lost" in Russia. Our readers should at least mentally prepare for some unpleasant surprises awaiting us in the coming days. I think that our military leadership has calculated these risks and is preparing preventive measures.

The next question, which is of interest not only to me, is how this retreat will take place? The thing is that compared with the "gesture of goodwill" at the end of March, then Ukrainian opportunities to pursue the retreating units were quite limited. So it was hardly a gentlemanly gesture on our part. Let's not take the Snake Island, because its case was special due to its location, but in September — October, we saw an uncontrolled process of Russians fleeing in the Kharkiv region. All — thanks to the fact that the Ukrainian forces could counterattack and pursue them.

What is the Russian scenario of withdrawal from Kherson? What will be the tactics of our military? In open sources, I did not see any hint of the existence of, I would not say, political but some kind of gentlemen's agreements, that in exchange for such a "gesture of goodwill" Ukraine would allow these troops to leave the right bank unhampered. They are extremely vulnerable precisely for the reason I mentioned earlier — there are only two main ways to the left bank. They are under the Ukrainian artillery control. The fewer Russian forces are left on the right bank, the easier it will be for Ukrainians to cut this retreat altogether. So I don't know what the tactics of the Ukrainian side will be.

Can they just be allowed to leave? Maybe so. But we understand that these 40,000 will not go to the Kerch Bridge — they will be immediately redeployed in another direction. So, if we allow them to leave quietly, in a week or two they should be expected near ​​ Donetsk or Zaporizhia, and will try to storm them from the south.

Obviously, there will be no lull in the coming days and weeks. It will not be like the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, when there was an agreement between the command and the enemy side that they would not touch the convoys moving towards the USSR.

I do not think that the withdrawal from Kherson region is a bluff or a deceptive manoeuvre, despite all the Russian treachery. It is really impossible to hold Kherson region on the right bank, the price is extremely high. They will explain this withdrawal on their TV: Apparently, the Ukrainians threatened to blow up the Kakhovka dam, so they decided to save the lives of both military and civilians. For me, this gives some understanding that the threat of its explosion is minimal, at least at the moment.

The intact Kakhovka dam is better for the Russians than if it were blown up. However, the risk of its explosion is not eliminated, only postponed, and when Russia is forced to demonstrate another "gesture of good will" — leave Nova Kakhovka and lose control of the Kakhovka dam — this threat will be extremely high. The Kakhovka dam means not only flooding of the territories downstream of the Dnieper but also a real threat to the Zaporizhia NPP — a threat of a disaster comparable to Japanese Fukushima.



Oleksiy Melnyk

Co-Director, Foreign Relations and International Security Programmes, Coordinator of International Projects

Born in 1962 in Khmelnytsty Rgn


Royal College of Defence Studies, London, UK (2007)

Air Field Operations Officer School, Biloxy, MS, US (2001)

Squadron Officer School, Montgomery, AL, US (1994)

Defence Language Institute, San Antonio, TX, US (1994)

Chernihiv Higher Military Air Force Academy, Ukraine (1984)


1980 – 2001 — Air Force Active Service (Cadet, Instructor Pilot, Flight Commander, Squadron Commander, Deputy Air Force Base Commander, Participant of two UN peacekeeping operations, Lt.Colonel (Ret)

2001 – 2004 — Razumkov Centre

2004 – 2005 — State Company Ukroboronservice

2005 – 2008 — Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, Head Organisational and Analytical Division — First Assistant to Minister of Defence

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