Ukraine’s victory in Kherson liberated a strategically critical city. While control of the Dnipro River remains in question because of Russian forces along the east bank, Ukraine can now envision a reality in which the river is once again useful for economic traffic. This is crucial not only for the rest of the war, but also for Ukraine’s future economic prosperity and viability.
However, Russian forces appear to have withdrawn from the city in mostly good order. While they left some equipment, and apparently some stocks of ammunition, the most valuable kit was apparently transferred across the river in recent weeks. This means Ukraine is unlikely to enjoy the same bonanza it acquired after Russian retreats from Kyiv and Kharkiv. It also means that Russian forces can continue to use their equipment in defense of territory seized in other parts of the country. For good measure, the Russians finished off the bridges that linked Kherson west of the river to its suburbs in the east. Ukraine had already significantly damaged these bridges, and they probably would not have been militarily useful in any case, but Russian troops took no chances.
The liberation of Kherson relieves a long-term Ukrainian concern about a Russian advance along the Black Sea coast towards Odesa. While Russia’s inability to conduct serious maneuver warfare since the first month of the war meant that Odesa was not under serious immediate threat, the removal of Russia from the west bank makes a major advance almost impossible to contemplate. It potentially frees Ukrainian forces still gathered in the south for a defensive contingency.
Kherson: What’s Next?
Fighting continues, and there is no indication that either Russia or Ukraine have had enough. Ukrainian spirits and morale are high, despite suffering significant casualties in the recapture of Kherson and in the Russian offensive near Bakhmut. For their part, the Russians are concentrating on rebuilding their personnel base, as well as retooling industry for the logistical demands of high-intensity combat.
The weather is changing in Ukraine, for the worse. However, it is unclear that the onset of winter will substantially slow the fighting. During World War II, operations on either side continued during the winter months, only pausing when spring turned the entire front into mud. The climatic conditions in Ukraine are different now than they were in the 1940s, and the infrastructure is somewhat better. And of course, fighting in Ukraine’s autumn can also be difficult.
Thus it is unlikely that the weather will prevent either Ukraine or Russia from launching offensives during the winter. Ukraine seems far more likely to contemplate such an offensive, given the high morale and good supply situation of Ukrainian forces. Russia, operating on more difficult lines with a badly damaged network of roads, faces a tougher situation. Russia also remains preoccupied by the problem of integrating newly mobilized troops into its existing units.
Nevertheless, some have argued that Russian commanders were able to sell a withdrawal to Putin by arguing that they could put its defenders to better use in attacks elsewhere along the front, particularly in Donetsk.
Ukraine and Russia: What About Negotiations?
The United States has ever so subtly nudged Ukraine in the direction of negotiations, if only to demonstrate to Europe that Kyiv is a reasonable partner. Of course, Russia could end the war tomorrow by withdrawing from the substantial extent of Ukrainian territory that it still controls, but the Russian political system has yet to demonstrate much flexibility on this point. The Russian defeat at Kherson eliminates the most notable salient along the entire battle line, generally rationalizing the front and leaving neither side with any obvious opportunities for advance.
Still, Kyiv is in no mood for peace while Russia holds large chunks of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has good reason to think that it can liberate more territory, improving its position at the negotiating table. For its part, Moscow still hopes that time is on Russia’s side. A diplomatic breakthrough right now seems unlikely, and as such we are probably looking at many more months of war.