by Miceál O’Hurley
KHERSON — Few people with a shred of humanity could do anything but rejoice at the Russian evacuation of Kherson. The wholesale carnage they could have inflicted on Ukrainian civilians and soldiers had they defended Kherson, making the Ukrainian Armed Forces fight for every inch of land on the West Bank of the Dniper, could have proved devastating. As it is, the booby-traps and mines they left behind during their retreat—devices meant to indiscriminately kill Ukrainian civilians and military alike—will prove as devastating as they are cruel. Add to that the Russian Federation forces’ barbaric and needless destruction of critical infrastructure that has left Ukrainians freezing, hungry, without electricity, heat or running water.
Albeit, Ukrainians are celebrating the liberation of Kherson even while they steel themselves for further combat to fully liberate their country from Russian invaders. The combat operations to come may prove far more costly than conventional wisdom would indicate. Moreover, it would require the coalition that supports the international rule of law and restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity to maintain is discipline if not increase the tempo and scope of its aid.
Contrary to some ill-informed pundits, Russia’s retreat from Kherson was entirely tactical and it came at a high political and social cost to the Russian Federation’s dwindling prestige and that of Vladimir Putin. Still, the speed and discipline by which they achieved their retreat from this geographically key city leaves an old soldier like me feeling chills up-and-down his spine. Evacuation across large, open, danger areas is always difficult. This is especially true if it is a water-crossing operation. Evacuations by even the most well-trained troops are always a bit helter-skelter. There is a tendency for bridges to become clogged with traffic. Ferries invariably experience problems. The logistics of what equipment to bring and what to leave is always daunting. Moreover, the order of withdrawl that ensures an orderly retreat while providing rear-guard defense is always a tricky call for a commander in the field. The peril during such operations is for troops and equipment to ‘bunch-up’ and leave themselves sitting targets for drones, artillery and usually air strikes. That Russian forces successfully evacuated Kherson without losing scores of troops and evacuating most of their equipment while facing a ‘mini-Dunkirk’ ensnarement showed a discipline by them rarely seen this year. To boot, it took place while significant numbers of new recruits are replenishing Russian battalions serving in Ukraine, including along the contact line with Kherson. Needless to say, Russia’s success has caused some shock and awe amongst seasoned analysts.
The second observation of concern arises from Russia’s ability to execute another difficult task—a withdrawal-through-lines. As Russian forces left Kherson and the West Bank of the Dniper they had no choice but to pass through their own lines manned by troops ready to repulse any pursuit or infiltration by Ukrainian forces. This is always a difficult operation. Keeping your own trigger-happy troops from engaging in a friendly-fire incident as they pass through lines requires not only discipline but luck. Russia’s ability to execute a large scale withdrawal through-lines operation without reports of friendly-fire gives another reason for Ukraine to be en guard. Russian forces, like the Nazi units that fought to defend territory in the waning days of World War II, might have just demonstrated they are more disciplined and capable than previously thought if only so by necessity.
Given Russia’s execution of these two highly difficult tactical maneuvers Western supporters of Ukraine must see the matter in context. While Russia achieved a successful retreat it was nonetheless a retreat. Accordingly, they should recognise it for what it is and redouble their efforts to ensure Ukraine maintains the momentum. The best way to do this is by increasing the flow of critical weapons systems into Ukraine and ensuring the latest technology is made available in real-time. While an analyst might begrudgingly admire the tactical success of the Russian evacuation they can only do so with the unequivocal acknowledgement that Russia is losing and losing badly. This admission comes within the context of the realisation that Russia is still capable of inflicting great pain even while they retreat to an ever-shrinking occupation footprint within Ukraine. The contact line remains long and with winter approaching Ukraine cannot afford to allow a stalemate of trench warfare to ensure with each side dug-in and pounding each other (and civilians) with artillery.
In the final analysis, as much as Russia might like to enjoy abundant credit for the success of their operation and claim Ukraine missed the opportunity to annihilate them as they attempted to retreat across the Dniper out of weakness and inexperience that would be folly. Russia retreated. Period. Tactical or not – that is rarely good news for any army.
Ukraine’s commanders showed remarkable wisdom by allowing the Russian evacuation. It was a pragmatic choice. The Russian retreat allowed Ukraine to quickly regain territory with limited sacrifice. Facing combat in an gruelling urban landscape Ukraine’s decision to allow Russians to cut-and-run was as cunning as it was practical. Ukraine would have taken Kherson by force but now they have achileved the same goal without the wholesale bloodshed that would have occured. The General Staff of the Ukraine Armed Forces acted to reserve their decision to fight on terrain more suited to their strengths and needs—a remarkably disciplines and wise choice. This is hardly surprising. Ukrainian commanders have out-generalled and their troops have out-soldiered Russian forces at every turn this year. Nonetheless, some measure of reticent respect for Russia’s execution of this difficult tactical operation might cause one to suspend their belief that Russia has expended its fighting capabilities. It hasn’t and the road ahead will be costly and possibly long.
Western solidarity is essential. This is especially so in light of Russian missiles raining down on Polish territory where the outcome of the meeting triggered by Article 4 of the NATO treaty might determine the outcome of a more direct involvement of some Western nations if the mutual defense aspect of Article 5 is triggered. NATO must determine what restraint can be exercised and yet still maintain the mere threat of Article 5 being a deterent and in so doing risk an imbalance in the Western pact with non-NATO nations.