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Russia’s Kherson Defeat: The End of Putin’s Regime?

HIMARS in Ukraine
HIMARS. This is similar to what is being used in Ukraine.

General Sergei Surovikin, the commander of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine, has just announced that Russia is retreating to the left bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson province. If this actually happens, the Russians will have also abandoned the provincial capital of Kherson, a city of 284,000 that they’ve occupied since the early days of the war.

Here’s what the official Russian propaganda outlet RIA Novosti had to say: “It is appropriate to organize defense along the barrier border of the Dnipro River, on its left bank…. The decision to defend the left bank of the Dnipro is not an easy one. At the same time, we will save the lives of our military and the combat capability of the troops…. The maneuver of the troops will be carried out as soon as possible. The troops will occupy the prepared defensive positions on the left bank of the Dnipro.”

Surovikin may be bluffing or setting a trap, but if he isn’t, the Russian retreat would be of potentially earth-shattering importance for several reasons.

First, thus far the Ukrainians have liberated small cities, towns, and villages. Freeing a larger city such as Kherson from the Russian occupying forces would be a major success that could herald a future cascade of liberated urban areas. And that would be the beginning of the war’s end and, possibly, the Russian military as an effective fighting force. We may expect Russian soldiers to engage in even more insubordination and desertion. Morale will plummet. Finger-pointing and squabbling among the officers will increase. After all, who in his right mind wants to serve in or take responsibility for an army that is getting battered and is retreating with its tail between its legs?

Second, Kherson’s liberation would be an enormous slap in Putin’s face, one that some analysts have suggested he might not survive. True or not, the retreat would certainly undermine Putin’s popularity with the adoring Russian masses, who believe he’s infallible, and his legitimacy with political and economic elites, who will have still more proof of his incompetence. A major defeat such as Kherson could easily create the conditions under which coups ordinarily take place. Even if he survives this disaster, Putin will be a far weaker president. And that, in turn, means that the power struggle among competing successors and their supporters is likely to become more vicious. Regardless of its denouement, policymaking will become less effective and conducting the war will become more difficult. Can Putin’s fascist regime survive for long if he is weakened? Can the Russian Federation survive if the regime is weakened? Western policymakers should be asking these questions.

Third, the liberation of Kherson will be an enormous shot in the respective arms of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian armed forces and their commanding general staff, and the Ukrainian population, which is being deprived of heat and light by Russian drones and missiles. Unless the Ukrainians suddenly get cocky, they will be able to parlay this momentum into further victories on the battlefront. The citizenry’s spirit will be lifted, and their determination to survive the cold winter ahead will be enhanced. Zelensky’s stature in the world will grow even more, with the upshot being that his ability to persuade Ukraine’s allies that they should back a winner will also grow. Western countries heretofore reluctant to support Ukraine as much as it needs will get on the pro-Ukraine bandwagon, lest they wind up on the wrong side of history.

In sum, the writing is on the wall for Putin, his regime, and Russia.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

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Written By

Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”



  1. Neil Ross Hutchings

    November 9, 2022 at 1:52 pm

    Kherson was an unexpected prize that dropped into Russia’s hands early in the campaign. No honest military strategist believed that it would be defended in the long term. The left bank makes a much easier line to defend and supply throughout the winter and still protects the Crimea water supply. The question now is whether or not Surovikin will attempt to prevent those Ukranian troops in Kherson from reaching the battlefields of Eastern Ukraine by removing the bridges over the Dneiper.

  2. Christophe

    November 9, 2022 at 2:16 pm

    Ah ah, Russia First Republicans are sore losers!

  3. James Summerton

    November 9, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    Hahah its a “special military operation” but in reverse ? Putin + Russian military + kadyrov = ?s

  4. Robert Fornshell

    November 9, 2022 at 3:22 pm

    I thought that Ukraine considered this Russian move a feint…

  5. 403Forbidden

    November 9, 2022 at 4:53 pm

    The decision to stand on the left bank (the eastern side of the river) is a sound one oin view of the coming winter and possible use of WMDs or nukes.

    Let’s see how zelenskiyy and his ukro Right Sector forces and their backers are going to handle the oncoming winter and nukes. One blast and it’s going to be dead man’s game for Kyiv.

  6. Ben Leucking

    November 9, 2022 at 5:33 pm

    If Russian troops do fully withdraw from the West bank of the Dnieper, Ukraine will be in a unique position to place Russian resupply via Crimea at risk for the first time. The reason is that HIMARS will be within 45 miles of the Isthmus of Perekop, the 5-mile-wide band of land that connects Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland. The E-97 highway and vital railroad lines run through the isthmus and are the supply routes upon which Russian forces rely. So, even if Putin gets his bridge repaired, the isthmus is a strategic choke point that Ukraine will now be able to exploit.

  7. Walker

    November 9, 2022 at 6:07 pm

    It’s fun to watch the Russians try to defend a retreat as a tactical win.

    “No one expected Russia to hold on to Kherson.” Lol!!!! No you just expected them to waltz all the way into Kiev.

    “The decision to stand on the left bank is a sound one.” An admission of losing with threats of WMD as a fall back. But if you are going to use WMD, why are you losing?

    There can be no reasonable responses to this. This is only a sign that Russia is unable to reverse its losing position.

  8. Jim

    November 9, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    “This is a very difficult decision. Yet, we would be able to preserve the most important thing: the lives of our soldiers.”

    — Russian General in command.

    Russia taking a lesson from World War I where Russia suffered horrible loses which sucked the morale out of the public… coupled with huge shortages on the home front of the basic necessities, leaving a general destitution of the population ripe for revolution.

    Gee, Russia taking into account basic home front considerations… and treating their soldiers as a valuable asset as opposed to cannon fodder.

    … hmm…

    Supermarkets are full in Moscow.

    Individual soldiers living to fight another day.

    But could this be part of something more?

    Could a peace come from this.

    After all, there have been hints from the Biden administration that exchange of Kherson could be the start of negotiations.

    In negotiations, often the saying goes, “You can have one or the other, but you can’t have both.”

    I hope that is the kind of arm’s length negotiation the world community could have in Ukraine.

    Let’s not destroy Ukraine to save it… one way or the other.

  9. Goran

    November 9, 2022 at 8:48 pm

    Jim, there can be no negotiations on which part of its territory Ukraine gets to keep nor which alliances it is allowed to try and join. Actually, there can be negotiations on those two issues if Ukrainians are OK with that, but they don’t seem to be, sooo…

  10. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 9, 2022 at 8:59 pm

    Once Ukraine consolidates the west bank of the Dnieper, this will release all those offensive forces to move on cutting the land bridge between Crimea and Donetsk. Driving south through poorly defended Zaporizhzhia Oblast, surrounding Melitopol and placing Harpoons on the Azov Sea. Would threaten the East bank of the Dnieper, the West side of Donetsk, cut the land logistics coming between and from Donetsk and Crimea, as well as threaten shipping on the Azov Sea.

    “Captains should study tactics, but Generals must study logistics”

  11. TheDon

    November 9, 2022 at 9:14 pm

    Russia kicking their own ass!
    Putin needs to go.
    Everyone knows its wrong and the Generals need to push Russia into free elections aftet they arrest Putin.

  12. mcswell

    November 9, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    Is gesture good will, da?

  13. MortenHJ

    November 10, 2022 at 6:59 am

    I have noticed that the term “war” is now used i russian media.
    If Surovikin needs advice in order to save more troops, I can give him the following : Go home, and take all the men with you.

  14. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    November 10, 2022 at 7:34 am

    If the Russian army is permanently weakened, it will save money for the American defense budget.

  15. Anybody

    November 10, 2022 at 8:16 am

    Xi, “…..thinking out loud….. eastern Russia has oil and minerals….. Russian military is weak….. time to take eastern Russia so we can better watch Russia’s back…… we are strong so we can defend eastern Russia so much much better against those imperialists Americans…. after that, just ‘re-educate’ those living there so they’ll be Chinese”

  16. TheDon

    November 10, 2022 at 9:05 am

    Putin’s a legend in his own mind. The Russians deserve better and I hope Russian Orthodox also lump ‘Krill’ with Putin.

    The only study in the future of Putin is in military schools of how the historic Ukrainians defeated a potential superpower.

    I also bet China isnt worried about the boarder or taking disputed land anymore.

    Russia’s in a dangerous position with no world support and alliance with China, Islamic Iran who believe in exteme islamic laws should be implemented all countries, hungry North Korea, and Syria Assad which have decimated his country.
    Putin must be insane irregardless of health.

    Generals need to bravely step in for their people.

  17. Gary Jacobs

    November 10, 2022 at 10:26 am


    As usual, you are wrong about almost everything you posted. I say almost because in this one area they did make the decision to save *some* of their soldiers. While at the same time over in Pavlika their soldiers are impaling themselves by the hundreds per day trying to take an area they have near zero chance of taking…and even if they did, the actual strategic objective of reopening the rail line from Donbas to Melitopol would still be impossible because of the range of HIMARS.

    You are so quick to urge negotiations when the Ukrainians are winning. What you fail to see is that just taking the right bank of the Dnipro does not provide enough strategic depth for Ukraine to ensure the next Russian invasion to connect Russian Rostov to Transnistria does not occur. And they need more of their Black Sea coast back to ensure Ukraine is an economically viable country. They also need to take back the ZNPP. Which they can do as they are on their way to send forces to the rear of the WWII esque lines that Russia is setting up on the left bank of the Dnipro.

    It’s a nice sentiment that you want the war to end and you hope for talks. You just happen to be consistently wrong about how to bring an lasting end to this war [and its origins]. Russia has a centuries long history of invading its neighbors and taking their land, and Putin is fond of comparing himself to those Russian emperors who are most famous for taking other people’s land. He spells it all out for you. You just have to listen to him.

    Oh ya, Biden has told Zelensky to keep open the notion of talks… but he is not rushing Ukraine into talks prematurely….and this stage would be prematurely. The election results from the US this week give Biden some breathing room on continuing this course of support for Ukraine. Dont expect that to change for at least 18months until the next election season begins…and if Ukraine is winning even bigger, you can expect Biden to campaign on it as evidence of successful policy. The Russians themselves said that they made the withdrawal announcement when they did [after the election] to make sure that they did not give Biden a boost.

    Bottom line: this is not the only area of Ukraine where the Russians are in big trouble…and it is waaaay too soon to talk about peace talks until Russia does more losing on the battlefield. OR Russia could just end its naked aggression all together and go back to the 1991 borders that they signed a deal to recognize for Ukraine in 1994: The Budapest Memorandum. The foundational post USSR deal that Russia has never lived up to.

    Have a liberating day.

  18. Andrew M Winter

    November 10, 2022 at 11:52 am

    I am beginning to see that most people are not really looking at the geography of Ukraine much.

    There are constant remarks about Russia “Defending the East Bank” or the “Left Bank” of the Dnipro. It’s like they don’t understand that UKRAINE IS ALREADY ON THE EAST SIDE OF THE DNIPRO!

    The Cities of Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro are BOTH on the EAST BANK. And, GUYS n GALZ it’s less than 80 miles from Zaporizhzhia to Melitopol where there is a notable amount of partizan activity already! The Battle line is actually closer still since the Russians are only at Vasylivka!

    It is only 42 miles from Vasylivka to Melitopol along the E105 highway. Why try to cross the widest part of the Dnipro when you are already across it? If Ukraine hits Melitopol and it is within HIMARS range already, or almost so, jeeze the only supplies that could get to the Russians West of there would have to come across what’s left of the Kersh bridge all the way through The Crimea, and across a narrow road due south of Kherson.

    So it could be the Ukraine is making a lot of noise in Kheson, but it is a lot of diversion. Ukraine has yet to commit major armored forces to an offensive. They lead in Kharkiv Oblast with 17 tanks. And not that many more in Kherson. It is MUD season again, and while the autumn rasputitsa is said to be less nasty than the Spring one, in an interview with The War Zone, Ukraine’s intel chief said that mud is a real problem. He said Currently Wheeled Vehicles can’t move at all and tanks are immobile for a few DAYS after every rain. Ukraine seems to be smart enough not to launch armored attacks through that awful mud.

  19. Froike

    November 10, 2022 at 12:51 pm

    Hi Gary…impressive post-as always. Have a meaningful Veteran’s Day…
    All the best.

  20. Jim

    November 10, 2022 at 1:23 pm

    mcswell, “Is gesture good will, da?”

    The Russians are not stating it as such (it’s a gesture of good will to their own soldiers & to the citizens Russia evacuated).

    “… the most important thing: the lives of our soldiers.” — Russian General

    But it certainly could be a sign of good will towards the international community, Europe, Ukraine, and most important, the U. S.

    A majority of Americans want the U. S. to engage in diplomacy & negotiations to end this war.

    Donor fatigue and concern for another “forever war” this time by proxy… and concern for what is going on, here, in America is driving this dynamic.

    The maximalists see this development as a sign of weakness to be exploited.

    Those that want peace hope it is an opening to meaningful negotiations that lead to a peaceful resolution, a global solution including sanctions, and trade relationships.

    A Peace Treaty can’t survive leaving lingering issues & grievances out and unresolved.

    The World wants a peaceful resolution to Ukraine (that settles all issues).

    Let’s hope American leaders show they are diplomatic leaders on the world stage.

    A successful results puts America in the best light in a dynamic geo-political world… and reaffirms it’s leadership status.

  21. Scottfs

    November 11, 2022 at 12:12 am

    I trust Putin as far as I can throw him. In his case, a distance because he’s tiny and bald.

    Ukraine should shoot the hell out the retreating Russians. Turn it into a rout.

  22. marcjf

    November 11, 2022 at 3:29 am

    Well I always have commented that a withdrawal from Kherson would be a major polticial defeat and an admission of strategic failure so I thought the RF would be forced to fight here and doubted that a retreat would be sanctioned. Looks like I was wrong. The RF appear to have been forced into a retreat and no amount of smokescreen can really hide this – albeit it has not yet taken place.

    Conserving troops is BS as it allows the UAF to redeploy its mobile reserves elsewhere and if the Russians want to win, then at some point they still need to fight them – though maybe under better odds?

    What the impact will be I do not know. I don’t think it is the end for Putin’s regime – and if it was I suggest an even more dangerous one would take its place. It could be the precurser for Peace negotiations, but who knows?

    My best guess is that if Peace does not break out the war will continue in 2023. At the present time stalemate looks likely, though one could construct plausible scenarios for alternatives.

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