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What Russia’s withdrawal from a key Ukrainian city means for the war

Russia’s announcement that it would retreat from Kherson is another setback for Putin and a political win for Ukraine.

A Ukrainian soldier works with artillery batteries deployed on the Kherson front to support the Ukrainian army on November 5.
Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Ukrainian troops entered the southern city of Kherson, days after Russia announced its retreat from the regional capital it has occupied since close to the start of the war.

The Ukrainian military said Friday that Kherson was now back under Ukrainian government control. Earlier this week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had said all Russian troops would withdraw from the city of Kherson to the eastern side of the Dnieper River, territory that Russia still controls.

Ukrainian officials initially expressed some skepticism about a Russian retreat; they had recently worried that, though Russia had shown signs of a possible withdrawal, it might instead be a feint to lure Ukrainian forces into a costly urban battle. So the sentiment among Ukrainian leaders was basically: Ukraine will confirm a full-on Russian withdrawal when it sees it happen.

Early Friday morning, Moscow officials confirmed that its retreat was complete, saying no equipment was left behind. Ukrainian officials also confirmed it, though with far more jubilation. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy shared a video on his feed that showed people celebrating, captioned “Our Kherson.”

Moscow’s retreat from the city of Kherson represents a political and symbolic win for Ukraine — and another incredible defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“You’re withdrawing from the biggest prize that you took after the invasion. That is the only big city, that’s Kherson, the capital of the province, and you’re withdrawing from there,” said Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities. “So how this can be spun as an act of strategic genius, I don’t know.”

Russian troops seized the city of Kherson in the early days after Putin launched his war in Ukraine, and it was the only regional capital held by Russia. In late September, Putin announced he had annexed four regions of Ukraine, including Kherson, and incorporated them into the Russian Federation. Though the international community broadly condemned these as the illegal land grabs they were, Russia’s retreat from this regional capital also shows the hollowness of Putin’s territorial claims, and undercuts his propaganda about liberating parts of Ukraine.

“It’s another turning point,” said John Spencer, a retired Army officer and chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum. “It’s the only regional capital city that Russia was able to take, which it took in the opening moments of the war, [but] they are not able to hold.”

For Ukraine, “it’s more of a political win than it is a battlefield win,” he added. “But it’s still a major win for sure.”

Indeed, Russia’s pullout is not a huge shock — Ukraine has been grinding toward this for some time. The Ukrainian military launched a counteroffensive to retake Kherson this summer, and the Ukrainian military has been chipping away at Russia’s position in Ukraine’s south for weeks and weeks, steadily advancing in Kherson and blowing up key crossings on the Dnieper that squeezed Russia’s ability to resupply.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who commands Russian forces in Ukraine, acknowledged this Wednesday, saying the decision to move to the opposite bank was not easy, “but at the same time we will save the lives of our military personnel and the combat capability of our forces.”

The victory in Kherson is also a tale of the two wars

The liberation of the city of Kherson will shift the narratives for both Russia and Ukraine. It could also alter how either side approaches this latest phase of the war.

For Russia, getting out of the city is another massive setback. (Again, just a reminder that Russian troops still control a chunk of the Kherson region.) Yet Putin has responded to past embarrassments by terrorizing the Ukrainian people — including indiscriminate bombing campaigns, sometimes far away from the front lines. These Russian attacks have also deliberately targeted critical civilian and energy infrastructure, such as water and electricity. Zelenskyy said in early November that Russia has damaged about 40 percent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The mayor of Kyiv has warned that people should be prepared for a worst-case scenario where the entire city could lose power or water.

Russia’s strategy is about suffering: for people, to diminish morale and the population’s support for Ukraine’s war effort; and for the economy, to crush it so that Ukraine can’t meet the needs of its people and is even more reliant on the West — a West that is also dealing with cost of living, inflation, and energy crises as winter approaches. The strategy is cruel, but, as experts pointed out, so far it has failed to do anything more than harden attitudes against Russia. And it has not, at all, boosted Russia’s fortunes on the battlefield. “Despite that massive wave of terrorist attacks that [Putin] just recently did, he’s still losing ground,” Spencer said.

Russia retreating from the city of Kherson may also help make Ukraine’s case that its strategy of retaking Ukrainian territory and expelling Russia is the right course. As Menon said, “it’s a big morale boost,” even as Russian and Ukrainian troops face fiercer and more critical battles in the east.

It will likely bolster Ukraine’s case to the West that it can possibly win those battles if it can just get more Western military support, including advanced weapons and air defense systems to protect against Russian barrages targeting infrastructure. “They also have a very strong card to play, which is: you’re supplying us — but we’re delivering, we’re showing we’re capable of winning,” Menon said.

That may also strengthen Ukraine’s case for continued economic aid, which it is also relying on. On Wednesday, according to Reuters, Ukraine’s economy minister Yulia Svyrydenko said Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure would shrink Ukraine’s gross domestic product by 39 percent, more than the 35 percent previously forecast.

Ukraine’s successes on the front lines overshadow Russia’s economic warfare, but right now, this may be where Ukraine is most vulnerable — perhaps, in part, because it is winning on the battlefield.

Update, November 11, 12:45 pm ET: This story, originally published on November 9, has been updated with confirmation of the Russian retreat from the city of Kherson.