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Elaf from Beirut: It has always been said about Kherson that three miracles are needed to liberate it from the Russians. Thanks to its recovery today, Ukraine has achieved one of the three miracles needed. However, capturing the remainder of the region would require Kyiv to perform two more miracles, each incrementally more complex than the other.
The first of the three miracles Ukraine needed was Russia’s failure to make changes to the Ukrainian offensive in the south, so that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces could overcome staunch Russian defences. Roughly two weeks ago, by all appearances, Russia had adapted to the reality of the Ukrainian campaign approaching Kherson, increasing the number of forces defending the western bank of the Dnipro River, and reportedly building important defensive positions in and around Kherson.
Finally, on October 25, one of Zelensky’s chief advisors, Oleksiy Aristovich, declared that “everything is clear in Kherson, the Russians are renewing their strength and consolidating their grouping there.” For the Ukrainian army, he continued, this means that “no one is preparing to withdraw. On the contrary, the fiercest battles will take place for Kherson.” Three days later, Ukrainian media reported that 1,000 Russian troops had been sent to defend Kherson, bringing the total number to about 30,000.
With this force, Russia could build a defensive position that would inflict heavy losses on any attacking force. One of the reasons given by the Russian General Sergei Surovikin that they had to withdraw was the difficulty in supplying the Russian garrison in Kherson. Indeed, since July, when Ukraine began using HIMARS missiles to attack bridges over the Dnipro River that Russia used to resupply the city, logistics have already been seriously hampered.
The first miracle happened
But Zelensky has been indicating since July that his forces intend to recapture Kherson. The first miracle that Ukraine needed to realize its dream was for Russia not to take the threat seriously, especially given the attacks on the logistics corridors of its forces on the western bank of the Dnipro River. If Russia had taken the Ukrainian threat seriously, it would have begun last summer stockpiling large quantities of all major war stocks, especially food, water, ammunition and fuel.
However, when Surovkin took charge of the Russian war effort in October, he hinted that his forces might have to leave Kherson when he said he might make “difficult decisions”. There were many pro-Russian war bloggers and military analysts who posited that the Russians would turn Kherson into a modern day “Stalingrad”, where they would fight desperately to keep the city, no matter the cost.
Given the amount of reinforcements and the time Russia had to stockpile supplies, the fear was that they would indeed take the “Stalingrad” route. They did not, and this unexpected decision gave Ukraine the first of three miracles, recapturing Kherson without having to go into battle. But to continue fulfilling Zelensky’s pledge to take back the region, two more miracles are needed.
The second miracle required
The second miracle that Ukraine needs is to overcome geography. While the presence of the Dnipro River was an obstacle for Russia to keep its forces in Kherson supplied, it was also a major obstacle for Ukraine to continue eastward.
Ukraine would still need to cross the Dnipro River to drive Russia out of the region. If Putin’s forces are driven out of Kherson, they will surely destroy the bridges on their way out. This is exactly what happened. Once the Russians had cleared the Dnipro River with the last of their forces, they blew up the last three bridges spanning the Dnipro River. It would now require a significant Ukrainian effort to re-establish the crossing points over the Dnipro River, and at present it is unlikely that the Ukrainian military will have the physical capacity to begin such an operation. Thus, for the time being, Russia is likely to retain control of approximately 70 percent of the Kherson region.
The third miracle is that Ukraine should be able to overcome Russia’s significant advantage in artillery and missile fire. Although Ukraine has managed to close the gap by receiving millions of artillery and howitzer shells from the West, Russia still has the advantage. However, what is likely to come next may be the most decisive.
Putin’s winter offensive?
As part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response to the deteriorating situation in his Ukraine war effort, he announced the mobilization of 300,000 reservists in September. Despite the difficulties and significant shortcomings by the Russian state in carrying out this effort—as many as 700,000 Russians are said to be fleeing the border to avoid serving—there are now more than 200,000 new soldiers (82,000 of the 300,000 reservists have already been deployed in Ukraine) in preparation for a winter offensive that could completely change the nature of this war.
By surrendering Kherson without a fight and blowing up the bridges over the Dnipro River, Surovikin reserved 30,000 of his best trained and experienced forces for use in the next offensive. Once this force is ready to launch Putin’s winter offensive (most likely in late December/early January when the ground is frozen solid enough), it will likely be preceded by a massive new assault on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure to plunge the country into darkness, and paralyze what is left of the rail system. Electric railroads, which significantly impede the Ukrainian government’s ability to provide its forces with basic needs, complicate its ability to move forces around the battlefield, and, most importantly, impair its ability to communicate with forces in the field.
It is still an open question whether Russia’s new forces can learn from the (significant) mistakes they made during the first nine months of the war. Maybe they won’t. But the odds will be in their favor, as the fundamentals still tilt decisively in Moscow’s direction.
Ukraine should celebrate its achievement of capturing Kherson, but Kyiv and its supporters in the West should realize that the Russian loss was not a mortal wound. The greatest danger to Zelensky’s forces will come in the next two months when the ground freezes over and the Russian reservists are ready for action. Only then will we know if Ukraine is capable of the other two miracles.
Elaph has prepared this report on the website.[1945The American