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A woman stands in front of bouquets of flowers and commemorates the victims and those killed in Kherson. DPA/PA Images

Tom Clonan Losing Kherson is a huge blow for Russia that will embolden the Ukrainian army

The security analyst looks at the recent gains for Ukraine and says it must now capitalise on this and win back more territory.

LAST UPDATE | 15 Nov 2022

PUTIN’S WITHDRAWAL FROM Kherson is hugely significant on a number of levels for the war in Ukraine. On a strategic level, the liberation of the port city marks a turning point in the war.

Kherson is the gateway to the annexed Crimean peninsula. It was one of the first cities to be occupied by Russian forces at the outset of the invasion in February. For Putin and the Kremlin, Kherson was a key target for two reasons. Russian forces there were able to link up with other units that had destroyed Mariupol to create a land corridor from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula – a key objective for Putin and his generals.

Secondly, Kherson represented a key foothold or staging point from which to launch further Russian advances towards Odessa and Moldova. Putin has had eight months to consolidate his hold on Kherson and prepare significant defensive positions and reinforce – by defence in depth – his grip of the land corridor from Crimea via Mariupol to the Russian border.

‘Unambiguous defeat’

Ukraine’s victory in Kherson represents a complete reversal of this strategic leverage and is an unambiguous defeat for Putin and his recently appointed Chief of Operations, General Sergei ‘Armageddon’ Surovikin.

On the level of the information war, the liberation of Kherson is a humiliation for Putin. Yesterday, TV footage of President Zelenskyy in Kherson’s central square went viral – a global propaganda coup for Ukraine. The footage also revealed the confidence – and competence – of Ukraine’s chief of staff, General Valery Zaluzhny in his capacity to guarantee Zelenskyy’s security in the recently liberated city.

On a tactical level, the ousting of Russian troops – from a heavily defended, and well-supplied city – demonstrates that the Ukrainian military can successfully mount and maintain a sustained, attritional offensive. Unlike the lightning advances made by Ukrainian troops in September in the Kharkiv area – greatly assisted by the element of deception, concealment and surprise – the advance on Kherson was a full frontal assault executed in full view of the Kremlin.

Putin and his generals – and the world – now know, that the Ukrainian military is capable of re-taking other strategic cities. Tactically, the offensive on Kherson has demonstrated that Ukrainian artillery – assisted by the US-supplied HIMARS systems – is capable of grinding down, eroding and defeating their Russian counterparts in the field. In short, Ukraine has prevailed in the concentration of firepower, armour and manoeuvre of troops to achieve a decisive victory over dug-in Russian forces.

Russia’s mistakes

On a psychological level, the Russians have suffered a moral defeat. They can offer no meaningful conventional military response on the battlefield to Ukraine’s offensive operations. Russia’s generals will fear a repeat of Ukraine’s dogged victory in other areas, in other towns and cities. Most of all, Putin and his generals will fear the prospect of Ukrainian forces re-taking all of the Kherson Oblast. For if they do, Crimea will be cut off.

On a psychological level, for Ukrainian forces, the liberation of Kherson will accelerate the motivation to fight. Coupled with this motivation and boost to morale, is the knowledge that recently mobilised Russian forces will begin to arrive in Ukraine in the coming months. Putin’s cack-handed partial mobilisation – along with the logistics and training challenges associated with it – means that Ukraine has been handed a very specific timeline for the maximum exploitation of their advance in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk. This timeline aligns with the onset of Winter and the months of December, January and February when ground combat will inevitably slow down.

In a dynamic emblematic of Putin’s overall handling of the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin and Russia’s general staff have managed their deployment, logistics and re-supply in Ukraine in a clumsy, fragmented manner with no attempt at deception, surprise or operational finesse.

From the outset, Putin split his forces and each Russian axis of advance has suffered from a lack of competent air superiority or combined arms manoeuvre. As a consequence, Russia’s losses have been extremely high – with tens of thousands of Russian troops killed and injured – along with thousands of tanks and armoured fighting vehicles destroyed and captured.

Quite simply put, Russian mechanised infantry have failed to protect their armour from Ukrainian ambush and assault. Russian artillery has failed to halt Ukrainian advances and has been repeatedly targeted by drone strikes, long range counter battery fire and HIMARS attacks mounted by Ukrainian forces. In every aspect of the field army – artillery, armour and infantry operations – the Russians have been out-classed and out-manoeuvred by Ukraine.

‘The will to fight’

Ukrainian losses have no doubt been high and their victories have been paid for in terms of thousands of battlefield deaths and injuries. However, the momentum of the war is clearly with Ukraine’s military which has shown itself capable of dynamic, kinetic operations designed to dislodge Russian forces. The remainder of the war will now depend on how which side retains the will to fight, and the capacity to supply the largest quantities of troops and materiel to key points on the battlefield.

In this context, Putin’s forces are making a major effort to take the town of Bakhmut, north of Donetsk. This offensive is designed to try and halt Ukraine’s advances in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts and to try and stop them linking up with their axis of advance deeper into Kherson.

For Zelenskyy and his General Staff, they will use the remaining window of opportunity to re-take as much of Kherson Oblast as possible and to attempt to cut off the Crimean Peninsula from Putin’s land corridor. For the moment, Ukraine has the initiative in this regard.

Putin’s forces have lost the initiative in Ukraine and are now fighting a series of defensive actions against a highly motivated and highly agile adversary. In my view, Putin has very few conventional military options to change the facts on the ground in Ukraine.

For Ukraine to ‘win’ this war, they simply need to deny Putin a clear victory. With the liberation of Kherson, they have achieved this and have inflicted a serious strategic, moral and psychological defeat on Russia.

For Russia to ‘win’ this war, they need an unambiguous victory in all four Oblasts recently declared part of Russia itself in Putin’s referenda. Any objective analysis of the situation renders such a prospect unlikely – unless Russia mobilises fully and formally declares war on Ukraine. Or unless Putin resorts to non-conventional warfare and weapons of mass destruction to halt Ukraine’s counter-offensives.

A turning point has been reached this week in Ukraine – but to fully exploit this, Zelenskyy and his forces will have to continue a brutal and grinding offensive well into 2023. It will become a contest of who can endure the most.

Dr Tom Clonan is an independent Senator and former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.  

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