Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson is another humiliation for Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets soldiers during a visit to a military training center in the Western Military District for mobilized reservists, outside the city of Ryazan on October 20, 2022.

Mikhail Klimentiev | AFP | Getty Images

As Russian military commanders announced another major pullout in Ukraine on Wednesday, pro-Kremlin commentators described the pullout as a humiliating and significant defeat for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin.

Putin kept a low profile when Russia announced it was withdrawing its troops from the provisionally occupied city of Kherson and the western bank of the Dnipro River, which bisects the Kherson region in southern Ukraine. The army said it could no longer provide its troops there and was worried about the safety of its military personnel.

It comes after Putin in September hailed the annexation of Kherson, following a sham referendum in the region, saying its people “become our citizens forever”.

Barely six weeks later – during which Russia evacuated thousands of Kherson residents to Russian territory, a move Ukraine has decried as an expulsion – and Putin’s words ring hollow.

News of the pullout seems to have surprised even the staunchest pro-Kremlin supporters, with pro-war Russian bloggers describing it as a blow to the Kremlin’s so-called “special military operation” and questioning the decision-making of the Kremlin. political power in the country. elite.

Angry pro-war faction

As news of the withdrawal emerged, Putin supporter and former adviser Sergei Markov likened the withdrawal to a defeat on the scale of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Speaking to his thousands of followers on Telegram, Markov said “the surrender of Kherson is Russia’s biggest geopolitical defeat since the collapse of the USSR” and warned that “the political consequences of this huge defeat will be really significant”.

Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin journalist and politician Andrey Medvedev said on Telegram: “What to say now about Kherson? Yes, I’m not happy either, like many of you. Yes, I also thought that there would be a different solution. That a fortified area would be made of the city.”

“You can turn the city into a big fortification, while having logistical difficulties. You can even defend it,” he said.

Medvedev added that the decision to step down would not have been taken without Putin’s approval. “I don’t really like the solution, but we are at war and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief’s decision in such a situation cannot be challenged.”

The military mobility of the Ukrainian Armed Forces continues towards the Kherson front in Ukraine on November 9, 2022. The Ukrainian army continues to support its units in Kherson as the Russo-Ukrainian war continues.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The withdrawal from Kherson was announced shortly after news reached the region that Kherson’s Russian Deputy Governor Kirill Stremousov had been killed in a car accident.

Medvedev said the two events represented a serious propaganda stunt for Russia and a boon for Ukraine.

“Kherson’s departure, especially in the context of the tragic death of Kirill Stemnousov, is a serious news blow for us. And now the West and Kyiv will start to relax [it] as an unconditional victory for Ukraine,” he said, adding that people wanted an explanation for the withdrawal.

Putin absent

The Kremlin probably expected a violent reaction against the withdrawal from Kherson; Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who publicly endorsed the withdrawal yesterday, has come under repeated criticism over Russia’s military strategy and tactics in Ukraine.

Russia has already suffered humiliation on the battlefield, withdrawing from the north and the capital Kyiv at the start of the war, then from Kharkiv in the northeast following a massive Ukrainian counter-offensive. He also withdrew from Snake Island, a strategic Black Sea outpost, in what he described as a “goodwill gesture”.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Putin – the “supreme commander of the Russian armed forces” – was nowhere seen as a grim-faced shoigu, alongside the Russian commander on the ground in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, announced the withdrawal from Kherson in a televised conversation.

Surovikin said it was no longer possible to continue supplying the city and claimed, without presenting evidence, that Ukraine planned to attack the nearby Kakhovka dam, which he said would cause massive flooding. and civilian casualties. He suggested that Russian troops be pulled back to the left bank of the river where they could “take up defensive positions”.

Shoigu agreed, ordering Surovikin to “begin to withdraw troops and take all measures to ensure the safe relocation of personnel, armaments and materiel behind the Dnipro [river]. For us, the life and health of Russian servicemen are always a priority. We must also take into account the threat to the civilian population”, according to comments reported by Russian state news agencies.

Surovikin acknowledged the “very difficult decision” Shoigu had to make in ordering the withdrawal, but said it would allow Russian forces to be redeployed for “offensives in other directions in the area of ​​operation”.

Kyiv has repeatedly dismissed claims that it planned to attack the Kakhovka dam, saying Russia was planning a false flag operation to attack the dam itself. Defense analysts, meanwhile, said Moscow was looking for an excuse to pull out. of a large part of Kherson.

Russian journalists expressed dismay at the news, with Alexander Kots saying on Twitter: “You’ll agree there’s not much [good news] from any direction.”

Another, Konstantin Semin, told his followers on Telegram that they should “prepare” for the excuses behind the withdrawal, saying: “Now you will be told convincingly about the undoubted benefits of the decisions that have been made”.

Ukraine was cautious after the announcement of the retreat, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warning that the war required people to remain impassive.

His adviser Mikhailo Podolyak also summed up concerns that the pullout could be a feint, designed to lure Ukrainian forces into a trap.

Whether the takedown is entirely genuine remains to be seen, though analysts at the Institute for the Study of Warfare said on Wednesday it was unlikely to be a trap, noting that “The ISW has previously observed numerous indicators that Russian forces, military and economic resources, and occupying elements have steadily withdrawn from the western bank across the Dnipro River, and Russian officials have anticipated and prepared for the withdrawal in a manner inconsistent with a campaign to deceive and entrap Ukrainian troops.”

numerous indicators that Russian forces, military and economic assets and occupying elements steadily withdrew from the West Bank across the Dnipro, and Russian officials anticipated and prepared for the withdrawal in a manner inconsistent with a campaign aimed at to deceive and entrap the Ukrainian troops.”

From now on, the Russian forces which must withdraw and the Ukrainian forces which want to reoccupy encounter difficulties.

Russian forces reportedly blew up bridges in Kherson on Wednesday and may have planted landmines in a bid to slow any Ukrainian advance. They will also likely have to retreat under fire from Ukraine.

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