On August 6 here in 19FortyFive, I published a military assessment entitled, “Ukraine Needs a Miracle to Drive Russia’s Military out of Kherson” in which I argued Kyiv would need three miracles to retake the oblast of Kherson. In light of Ukraine’s recapture of the city of Kherson, its worth reexamining my arguments against how things have played out since. Possibly of greater importance is looking forward to what might come next.
The Fight for Kherson, Explained
To its great credit, Ukraine produced one of the three needed miracles and succeeded, against the odds, in retaking Kherson city. Capturing the remainder of the oblast, however, will require Kyiv to produce the other two miracles, each progressively more complex than the last.
The first of the three miracles Ukraine needed was for Russia to fail to make changes and adjustments to the Ukrainian offensive in the south so that Zelensky’s troops would be able to overcome the stout defenses. Up until barely two weeks ago, all appearances were that Russia had adjusted to the approaching reality of a Ukrainian drive on Kherson, in that Russia increased the number of troops it had defending the western bank of the Dnipro and reportedly building significant defensive positions in and around the city of Kherson.
As recently as October 25, one of Zelensky’s senior advisors, Oleksiy Arestovych, declared that in “Kherson everything is clear. The Russians are replenishing, strengthening their grouping there.” For the Ukrainian military, Arestovych continued, it meant “that nobody is preparing to withdraw. On the contrary, the heaviest of battles is going to take place for Kherson.” Three days later, Ukrainian media reported that another 1,000 Russian troops had been sent to defend Kherson, bringing the total to approximately 30,000.
With such a force, Russia could have built a defensive position that would have imposed a severe cost on any attacking force. One of the reasons cited by Russian Gen. Sergei Surovikin as necessitating the withdrawal was the difficulty in resupplying the Russian garrison at Kherson. Indeed, since July, when Ukraine first started using HIMARS rockets to attack the bridges over the Dniper that Russia used to resupply the city, logistics were indeed seriously hampered.
But Zelensky had been signaling since at least July that his forces intended to retake Kherson. The first miracle that Ukraine needed to make their dream of recapturing the oblast was for Russia not to take the threat seriously, and especially given the attacks on the logistic routs to their troops on the western bank of the Dnipro. If Russia had taken the threat seriously, they would have started last summer stockpiling significant quantities of all key war stocks, especially food, water, ammunition, and fuel.
Yet when Gen. Surovikin took over the Russian war effort in October, he hinted that his troops may eventually have to leave Kherson when he said “difficult decisions” might need to be made. There were many pro-Russian war bloggers and military analysts that assumed Russia would turn Kherson into a modern day “Stalingrad” in which they would fight to keep the city no matter how great the cost.
Given the amount of reinforcements and the time Russia had to stockpile supplies, I feared they would indeed take the “Stalingrad” path. We now know they didn’t, and that unexpected decision handed Ukraine the first of the three miracles, in that they retook control of Kherson without having to even fight the battle. But to continue to fulfill Zelensky’s pledge to recapture the oblast, two more miracles are needed.
Where the Kherson Fight Is Now: Miracle Two Needed
As pointed out in my August 6 analysis, the second miracle Ukraine needs is to overcome geography. While having the Dnipro River at their backs was a hindrance for Russia to keep its troops supplied in Kherson, it also served as a major obstacle for Ukraine to continue eastward.
Ironically, on August 6 I wrote: “If Ukraine overcame every obstacle and successfully drove Russia out of Kherson (city), they would still need to cross the Dnipro to drive Russia out of the region. If Putin’s troops were driven out of Kherson, they would certainly destroy the bridges on their way out.”
That is exactly what happened. As soon as the Russians cleared the Dnipro with the last of their troops, they blew the last three bridges spanning the Dnipro. It would now require a major effort by Ukraine to reestablish crossing points over the Dnipro, and at present it is unlikely the Ukrainian army has the physical capacity to launch such an operation. Thus, for the present, Russia will likely retain control over the roughly 70% of Kherson oblast it still occupies.
The third miracle I noted from the August 6 analysis was that Ukraine would have to be able to overcome Russia’s substantial advantage in artillery and rocket fire. Though Ukraine has been able to narrow the gap with the delivery of millions of rounds of artillery shells and howitzers from the West, Russia still holds the advantage. It’s what is likely to come next, however, that may prove the most decisive.
Putin’s Winter Offensive?
As part of Putin’s response to the deteriorating situation in his Ukrainian war effort, he announced a mobilization of 300,000 reservists in September. Despite significant difficulties and shortcomings by the Russian state in conducting the effort – and reportedly up to 700,000 Russian men fleeing the border to avoid serving – there are now more than 200,000 new troops (82,000 of the 300,000 mobilized reservists have already been deployed to Ukraine) preparing for a winter offensive that could completely change the nature of this war.
By surrendering Kherson city without a fight and blowing the bridges over the Dnipro, Surovikin has preserved 30,000 of his best-trained and experienced troops for use in the coming offensive, sealed off the southern front from a risk of a Ukrainian flanking action and will soon have a massive new force to employ (I will publish a separate analysis next week looking at potential objectives of this offensive).
Once this force is ready to launch Putin’s winter offensive (likely in late December/early January when the ground has sufficiently frozen), it will likely be preceded by a massive new attack on the Ukrainian energy infrastructure to plunge the country into darkness, cripple the remainder of its electrified rail system, and significantly hamper the government’s ability to supply its troops with basic needs, complicate their ability to move troops around the battlefield, and most critically, degrade their ability to communicate with troops in the field.
It is still a very much open question as to whether these new Russian forces can learn from the (significant) mistakes they have made over the first nine months of the war. Maybe they won’t. But the odds will be in their favor, as the fundamentals still decisively tilt in Moscow’s direction.
Ukraine should celebrate its accomplishment in taking Kherson city, but they and their supporters in the West need to realize that the Russian loss was not a fatal wound. The greatest danger for Zelensky’s forces will come in the next one to two months when the ground freezes and the reservists are ready to employ. Only then will we know whether Ukraine was able to pull off the other two miracles.
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.