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Russia Abandoning Kherson is Good for Ukraine (But the War Is Not Over)

Terminator Tanks
Terminator Tank from Russia. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The commander of Russian forces in Ukraine claimed today that his forces had chosen to withdraw from Kherson for positions he said were more defensible on the east bank of the critical Dnipro River. Aleksey Arestovich, Senior Advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, fired back that Russia was being “driven out of Kherson by Ukrainian Defense Forces.”

The circumstances and purposes of Russia’s looming withdrawal remain murky. Still, one thing is clear: if Russian forces follow through and leave, it would represent another major setback for Putin’s forces and a shot in the arm for Zelensky’s.

At a Moscow press event on Wednesday, Russian Gen. Sergei Surovikin told Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu that Surovikin had assessed that holding Kherson would be too costly, and recommended Shoigu allow him to withdraw to “preserve lives of servicemen and combat readiness of forces.” The Russians would reposition on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River to previously prepared defensive positions, the general claimed.

Another senior advisor to Zelensky, Mykhailo Podalyak, tweeted that “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight” and would rely on “intelligence data” and not “staged TV statements.” The circumstances, methods, and timing of Russia’s reported withdrawal from Kherson was not announced by Shoigu, so some skepticism is warranted. Until Russian soldiers actually withdraw and Ukrainian troops reoccupy the city, withdrawal remains a claim only.

It is possible, as many have noted, that this could be a ploy to lure Ukrainian forces into a trap in which Russia could launch preplanned artillery concentrations on Ukrainian troops once they come out into the open. Given Russian military performance since February, however, it is very possible Surovikin’s claims could be true.

After initially flooding Ukraine and occupying large swaths of territory, Russian troops were halted in the early days of the war and force to withdraw from Kyiv and Kharkiv after suffering egregious casualties from the Ukrainian defenders. Then in September Ukrainian troops forced Putin’s army to cede massive swaths of territory in the Izyum front, driving the Russians back to their present positions near Svotavo.

One of the key differences now – and part of the mystery – is that Russia’s claims it will withdraw come, not as a result of Russia suffering significant battle losses, but while Zelensky’s troops are still a distance from the city and are not presently posing a direct threat to the Russian position in Kherson. Though that could support the theory that the claim of withdrawal is a ruse, other evidence suggests Surovikin’s declarations of withdrawal may be genuine.

Russia has been preparing defensive positions on the east bank of the Dnipro for weeks, and has evacuated tens of thousands of mostly Russian-speaking civilians from the city. Last week there were reports that some of Russia’s forward military checkpoints in Kherson had been abandoned. These actions indicate a pre-planned, methodical withdrawal. From a strictly military point of view, the Russian decision makes sense.

By withdrawing in order, Russia would be able to preserve all its fighting force, leave with all its equipment, ammunition, and fuel, and occupy prepared defensive positions on the east bank of the river. From this position, it would be nearly impossible for the Ukrainian troops to launch any new offensives against the Russian lines, as they would be blocked by the Dnipro river.

If it’s true that Russia is massing forces for a major winter offensive, then the preservation of these forces out of Kherson would add to the potential striking power in the Donbas, Kharkiv, or western directions. Thus, withdrawing from Kherson now could preserve Russian strength for a bigger offensive that is still to come. Yet regardless of what may happen later, from a political and morale point of view, a Russian withdrawal from Kherson would prove to be a major loss for Putin and another huge gain for Zelensky.

Already Russian forces are getting pummeled in western media for “abandoning” Kherson without a fight. Even pro-war Russian war-bloggers are angry with the Kremlin’s decision. If Russia really does leave the city, you can bet Zelensky will make a major production for global consumption when Ukrainian troops reenter Kherson, deepening Putin’s shame. Coming on the heels of Ukraine’s recapture of large swaths of territory in Kharkiv in September, this will undoubtedly prove to be a major boost to the morale of the Ukrainian troops throughout the conflict zone.

Yet as I often write in these pages, this is a war, not a battle. While Putin will be humiliated by this latest withdrawal, there are reportedly hundreds of thousands of new troops preparing for a major winter offensive. Whether Russian troops left Kherson or retained control at a high cost, the war will likely come down to what happens this winter and spring.

If Russia is able to steamroll Ukrainian troops when they bring their new firepower to bear, Zelensky could one day be forced into a negotiated settlement whether he wants it or not. But if Ukrainian troops, with NATO’s help, are able to absorb the blow and prevent any further loss of territory, it will likely be Putin who is forced to sue for peace, as he will have used all his mobilized power; its doubtful he could survive domestically if he were to try and order an additional mobilization if the first one fails.


Russian President Putin. Image Credit: Russian Federation.

Given the significant damage already done to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure from Russian attacks in recent weeks, the possibility that Europe suffers a severe energy crisis of their own this winter, and that the West writ large could endure major economic troubles, it is equally far from certain Ukraine will be able to withstand Putin’s winter offensive. Ultimately, whether Russia evacuates its troops from Kherson or stays to fight might end up being a minor footnote in the history of the war.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.



  1. Walker

    November 9, 2022 at 5:41 pm

    After nine months of getting pounded for being incorrect, Davis finally gets careful about prospects for Ukraine. But his love of Russia’s military still can’t be contained as his final statement shows.

    So I laughed along at his closest claims to reality ever in one of his articles. And then guffawed at his claim that Russia is going to do a winter offensive.

    Oh, I’m sure that maybe what Russia is planning. But it isn’t going to work. If they try it, it will be the end of Russia’s military. Oh they may be able to take a few kilometers but it will be one of the worst defeats in human history. Making all their losses to date look small.

    I can predict this easily for the simple reason that the Russian military is basically depleted of three things. Equipment, well trained troops, and morale. So the effect will be this, they can throw hundreds of thousands of troops with breaking down equipment into a salient, the Ukrainians in the area will have to pull back, but this will create a kill box. And that is just what Ukraine will do. Kill and kill and kill. So go for it Russia. Time to learn what Custer found.

  2. Kelvin Clarke

    November 9, 2022 at 6:03 pm

    There is no chance that the Kremlin would allow a humiliating retreat from Kherson to proceed unless the military situation had already deteriorated to abysmal. Ukraine has patiently taken full advantage of it’s position and systematically pummelled the very substantial Russian forces for months.
    Furthermore, it remains to be seen as to how much of the vital equipment, or even soldiers themselves, can be successfully withdrawn. How do the Russians expect to evacuate tanks and artillery across a pontoon while under accurate fire?

  3. Rick

    November 9, 2022 at 8:00 pm

    For a well thought out assessment of movements and events pertinent to the execution of this war read Daily Kos. He was an artillery soldier with a keen sense of their capability (including HIMARS with actual combat experience), strategic in depth analysis able to separate propaganda from reality. He also, provides maps as a visual aid. Far more accurate and comprehensive than Davis.

  4. aaall

    November 9, 2022 at 8:07 pm

    Will Russian have the seasoned noncoms and junior officers to lead those “hundreds of thousands” of new troops? Or the body bags and vodka?

  5. LJG

    November 9, 2022 at 8:58 pm

    The current force Russia is deploying is untrained and ill equipped for winter. Their staging a successful Winter Offensive seems remote.

  6. Goran

    November 9, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    Daniel Davis in June; “If the two sides do not end the war through negotiations in the coming months, it is likely – not just possible – that Ukraine will lose the war.”

    That was in June, yet you’re still flogging that dead horse? A dead, very bloated horse. Ukraine will negotiate, negotiations are inevitable, but not on Putin’s terms and certainly not because Ukrainians are afraid of threats. Negotiations can be about what kind of special rights ethnic Russians in Ukraine should have within a sovereign and intact Ukraine, not about whether Russia will allow Ukraine to join World Curling Federation or any other international alliance for that matter.

  7. Gary Jacobs

    November 9, 2022 at 9:25 pm

    Davis says, “One of the key differences now – and part of the mystery – is that Russia’s claims it will withdraw come, not as a result of Russia suffering significant battle losses”.

    LoL. The Ukrainians have been grinding down the Russian force for months, and they have made the idea of Russian maintaining a force on the west side of the Dnipro untenable by blowing up the bridges, the ferries, and pontoons that the Russians have tried to use to keep their troops supplied on the west side.

    As well, The Ukrainians actually care about their soldiers. They are not to be used as cannon fodder the way Russia uses theirs. Other than Kherson City itself, The entire terrain of that area of Kherson Oblast is small towns, and agriculture open fields with irrigation ditches that can be used as trenches.

    With the use of HIMARS, M777, and other standoff weapons, the Ukrainians had the exact right plan to patiently grind down the Russians…probe for weak spots on the ground to see where they can take back some land… and then be prepared to inflict as many casualties as possible once the Russians realised they have to retreat…OR the Ukrainians could just keep grinding on them in place until they break. Which is exactly what happened just a couple weeks ago when the Ukrainians advanced 20km in one day….after advancing 20km along the Dnipro from the start of the counter offensive to that point…for a total of 40km advance from the start of the counter offensive that Davis so quickly, and incorrectly, called a failure.

    Some geolocated images are emerging of newly liberated towns in Kherson, but the Ukrainians are wise to proceed with caution in case of traps.

    Several other things Davis fails to take into account… The Ukrainians dont even have to take Kherson City to put HIMARS in range of the very north edge of Crimea – making the supplies coming in from Crimea vulnerable to HIMARS, along with a lot more of Eastern Kherson, and the west of Zaporizhia. They just have to get close to or in Zmiivka and Beryslav. The terrain there is far less defensible for the Russians than Kherson City. Especially when the Ukrainians get to within Excalibur range.

    If the Russians do decide to stay and fight in Kherson and try to create a “Stalingrad”, they will be analogous to the Nazis without resupply [along with all the other ways they are analogous], and the Ukrainians will likely surround the city and put them into a ‘cauldron’ to squeeze them for a while before they decide to engage in urban combat. I doubt it lasts 5 months the way Stalingrad did, but it could take a bit.

    Satellite images show The Russians look to be setting up three layers of defense on the east bank of the Dnipro as their version of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

    Meanwhile, having penned the Russians into the city of Kherson [or forced their retreat], There wont be a need for a Normandy like invasion…the Ukrainians have the option of using their short-ish internal lines of transport to send much of their offensive maneuver forces through Dnipropetrovsk over to Zaporizhia. From there they head south to Melitopol and Tokmak while sending units west at various stages to take back the ZNPP and squeeze the Russian troops on the east bank of the Dnipro in Kherson…and come in behind the defenses they are building facing west.

    That also completely cuts the land bridge to Crimea through Donbass, as well as shuts off mouth of the Crimean Canal from Nova Kakhovka.

    That Stalingrad strategy wont be working out well for the Russians on any level.

    As well, Davis never likes to talk logistics, which the Russians are famously bad at. How does he imagine the next Russian invasion force will be supplied? In two articles, He never says. It wont be from the Kerch Bridge anytime soon. Belgorod is likely to be cut off from Starobilsk soon. And the Russians are impaling themselves trying to take Pavlika in what seems to be an attempt to reconnect the one rail line from Donbas to Tokmak and over to Kherson.

    Russian Minister of Transportation Savelev is on camera Oct. 31 saying that 250 light cars on average cross the Kerch Bridge per hour. He implies No trucks allowed on the bridge. Heavy cargo is being sent via occupied land corridor from Rostov oblast [7.5k trucks since Oct 8], along with some ferries to Crimea when the weather permits. And in over a month only 16 “light trains” have crossed on the rail portion of the bridge. Full repairs will be complete by July. The first Russian supply ship just got to Mariupol.

    On that Bridge for only 250 cars an hour = FOUR a minute, one every 15 seconds. That means they’re only letting one car slowly cross the damaged span at a time.

    The lack of heavy train capability on the bridge makes the situation for Russia’s military very bad. The reality of the dire supply situation the bombing of the Kerch Bridge has led the Russians to make moves on the battlefield that have cost hundreds of Russian lives in one small area in less than a week.

    One likely reason the Russians are trying so hard in the Pavlika area is that they are trying to create buffer and establish a Melitopol-Donetsk railway connection. The Russians would need to create a buffer zone and push away the Ukrainians from the railroad in the Volnovakha area. That’s likely an exercise in futility considering the range of HIMARS, but hey, if the Russians want to impale themselves over such a thing…great.

    There are plenty of posts from Russian mil-blogger Telegram channels about heavy losses from Russia’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigade in Pavlika.

    Sladkov says that its members are urging the governor of Primorye to contact the Russian MoD because of their high pointless losses. They say they and the 40th Naval Infantry Brigade were sent on an offensive in Pavlivka so General M [Mordvichev, Perhaps?] and his colleague could look good to Gerasimov and receive the Hero of Russia.

    “The grandiose claims about successful operations by Russians in Pavlivka and Uhledar direction have changed for “urgent appeals to the higher-ups to do something about it”, as Sladkov cries about it in his latest post.

    Same with WarGonzo summarising the situation and saying that “everything is bad” in Pavlika.

    Wagner Group’s channel is openly mocking the Russian military’s attempt to minimize their losses in the area.

    Other commenters in the last article pointed out the massive marshland that covers parts of southern Belarus and North Ukraine…making an invasion down Ukraine’s northwest border from Belarus, oor another attempt to take Kyiv, both very very bad ideas for Russia that will likely turn out even worse for them than the last time they tried to invade from the north.

    The biggest thing that scares the pro Ukraine crowd right now is the possibility of Russia using Iranian ballistic missiles like the terrorists they are. Turns out NASAM has ballistic missile defense capability, and the Italians are about to provide a system with that capability as well. Biden should be telling Russia if they use Iranian ballistic missiles, we will provide ATACMs, among other weapons, to counter the Russian move. The election yesterday likely provided Biden the political buffer to do step up weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

    Bottom Line: Of course the war isnt over, and Kherson certainly isnt liberated yet. It’s fine to consider a bunch of scenarios… but Davis has a problem of leaving out a lot of facts and context when he does these articles…and it makes his work less valuable because of that.

  8. Steven

    November 9, 2022 at 10:36 pm

    What was the story about gift horses?, oh yes, the Trojan Horse.
    I would be extremely leery of any voluntary withdrawal by Russian forces.
    What they are trying to do is get their forces out of Kherson without punishing, devastating loses.
    Ukraine’s should continue artillery and HIMAR’s bombardment of the Dnipro bridges and Russian escape routes to force a surrender rather than let these Russian forces escape intact to regroup and make another invasion of Ukraine, possibly with coordination of threatened Belorussian forces in a simultaneous invasion of Ukraine from the north. Russia will only be defeated through annihilation of its invasion forces, through their surrender, or total withdrawal from Ukraine, including Russian occupied territories.

  9. Freeborn John

    November 10, 2022 at 3:13 am

    Daniel Davis is wrong as usual to pin his hopes for Russian victory on a hypothetical winter offensive. This long war will be decided like all long wars by the industrial capacity of the two sides. Davis should read Paul Kennedy’s “Rise of the Great Powers” before writing any more nonsense on this site.
    With a huge imbalance of GDP in favour of Ukraine thanks to its western backers the outcome is a foregone conclusion and has been since March 2022.

    There is only one winter campaign that could yet win this war for Putin ; the 2024 US presidential election. If that were to result in the denial of western weapons to Ukraine from the US and this were followed by other significant suppliers like the U.K. then perhaps Putin has a chance. But that seems highly unlikely.

  10. Neil Ross Hutchings

    November 10, 2022 at 6:46 am

    And if the Russian troop withdrawal does proceed it remains to be seen whether or not Surovikin will do anything to prevent Ukranian troops in the Kherson area from entering the battle in Eastern Ukraine and the Donbas. I am not a military expert or historian but it seems unusual for a planned troop withdrawal to be announced in the media. Ukraine must now be very tempted to do whatever they can to block this withdrawal of troops at the river. Does anyone have any idea of the sizes of the forces involved on both sides?

  11. David Chang

    November 11, 2022 at 6:08 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Many people laugh at Soviet Russia, believing that United States always win.

    But think about socialism warfare, as the past, United States pay major price for socialism warfare and lost in socialism warfare.

    The next bargaining is the cost of correcting Ukraine, and is like correcting Europe after 1945. After democracy socialism party incite socialism warfare, people in Ukraine know that Soviet Russia, Europe, Democratic Party and Zelenskyy don’t want to bear their duties. If people in Ukraine don’t confess their sin and repent to God, and don’t correct Ukraine with their own money, Ukraine people will make the same sin as people in Afghan, and be Soviet Ukraine again.

    God bless America.

  12. Roger Bacon

    November 11, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    Russia has been saved twice in its history by Winter. I think this time Winter will not be so kind to Russia. Every report is that their troops are not ready for it. North Korean’s working to produce winter uniforms as fast as they can and the perilous supply lines to the front make for a very sad logistical situation.

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