Abandoning Kherson (six weeks after it was supposedly annexed to Russia) might be the “correct”, pragmatic military decision in the immediate context in which it was made.
However, this does not:
- Excuse the shockingly poor decision-making that created this context in which a withdrawal then made sense.
- Excuse the weeks of lying there would be no retreat after it had already been greenlit and was being prepared for
- Change the reality that Russia has now lost what was the most strategically valuable of its 2022 gains by far
Let’s start with the last point.
No Kherson means that Russia will more likely than not come out of this war a loser just as much as Ukraine will. No springboard on the right bank means a march on Odessa is most likely out of the question for this war. Without Odessa it’s very difficult to construe an outcome that would count as a Moscow victory. Russia could take half of the left bank (highly unlikely with the present posture) and without Odessa it will be a pyrrhic victory.
Then there is the lying. It is now clear as day that the purpose of the civilian evacuation was to make a military withdrawal politically digestible. Yet the whole time Russian officials maintained “Russia is here forever” and that the real reason for the evacuation was intel on some murky Ukrainian plot against the river dam.
What is the purpose of this constant lying? Who does this help? Why is Putin’s system pathologically incapable of leveling with the people and so comfortable with these Orwellian swings? One day a retreat from this esteemed Russian city was unthinkable and probably some NATO-planted rumor to discredit the armed forces. The next day it was the most impeccably correct military decision of all time. One that even the anti-RUMOD Kadyrov and Prigozhin are mobilized to defend if they want to keep favor with the boss who greenlighted it weeks ago as they surely now.
Then there is the supposed military impeccability of the decision to withdraw that we’re now informed we must celebrate. Thing is, the retreat does indeed have a ruthless military logic behind it — but only if you’re looking at the event through a straw. If a person takes an axe and chops off his leg then he probably should pull out of the upcoming track race he had signed up for. But does that really mean that we’re looking at someone who is great at track-racing logic??
Surovikin explains that he has to fall back because his supplies are shot. And I explain that he is telling the truth because his bridges are shot by HIMARS. But what are we talking about here? Russia incorporates Kherson into its sovereignty and hangs out billboards “Russia is here forever”, “Kherson — With Russia for ages”, “Kherson — Russian city” and then turns around and abandons the city of Suvorov, Ushakov, and Potemkin to the enemy because the Americans had sent over something as lightweight as puny little HIMARS (90-kg warhead with 90-km range)?
Firstly, you already knew that your bridges were shot when you “annexed” the city and told the folks Russia is never leaving. Secondly, are the Americans then gods? If the Americans are able to make an intervention into a Russian war as tiny as sending over some tiny little rockets and this being enough for Russia to abandon a storied Russian city, then maybe we should all become Washington slaves and start injecting hormone blockers right this minute because all resistance is obviously futile?!
But of course, the real reason Surovikin had to fall back isn’t because of HIMARS but because the Kherson bridgehead wasn’t expanded into something with real depth for several months while there was still plenty of opportunity and time. —Even without the HIMARS factor having a shallow bridgehead where an enemy advance of just 5 or 10 km can put your bridges in enemy howitzer range (and an advance of 30 km can cut you off) is a needlessly high-risk situation. —One that is acceptable early on as the bridgehead is being formed, or while you are occupied elsewhere, but that over the medium term you would be looking to rectify.
Had this been done, then by the time HIMARS made the appearance it would have been far less impactful. The reason this wasn’t done is by now known to all my readers. It’s the same old refrain of force availability and dispersion. Later on there just weren’t enough men compared to what the Ukrainians had. And early on when the Russians were still ascendant they were just way too dispersed over way too many objectives to properly leverage that.
So no. That the Russians withdrew because they are slaves to ruthless military logic and thus naturally had to retreat when their supply was lost is only true through a straw. But throw away that straw and the broader truth is that the Russian army was forced to abandon a Russian city because the Russian leader for 7 months stood in defiant rebellion against military logic and having started a major land war in Europe then starved his own military of the men to fight it.
Tens of thousands of pro-Russians of Kherson who welcomed the Russians are now made homeless, sentenced to live out their lives as exiles, Russia is humiliated, and the Americans look like gods being able to inflict humiliation on Russia incredibly cheaply.
There is nobody in the world who praised Russia more than I for the other painful withdrawal from Kiev. I made the argument that is now being made for Kherson. I said the withdrawal would free up resources tied up in an obviously doomed expedition and address Russia’s dispersion problem. I praised Russia for having the guts to walk away and not fall pray to the sunk cost fallacy, no matter how difficult it may have been to abandon gains that had been paid for with blood. I proclaimed myself to be “in awe of the sheer ruthlessness of Russia’s withdrawal”.
So I understand that a withdrawal can be a good and logical thing. I’m the one who made that precise argument. 8 months ago.
But what I’m fed up with is that withdrawals are the only time Russia will ruthlessly yield to cold hard military logic. When it comes to anything else, such as resourcing the military, the name of the game is half-assery, procrastination and lethargy.
After Kiev I probably expected that Moscow’s decisiveness in calling a necessary retreat would also gradually start showing up in other matters. Like solving the problem of insufficient mass. That wasn’t the case. It took another six months for that and even then it was done in a half-assed way with conscripts remaining undeployable. Between Kiev, Kupyansk and Kherson a clear pattern now exists where it is somewhat easy for the military to get a permission for a withdrawal when they need one, but it is extremely difficult for the military to get anything else, such as the material and the manpower backing needed for the job.
And there’s nothing praiseworthy about that. Having delivered to NATO the gift of opening this war Putin is allowing Ukraine and the West to be introducing more men and new equipment to the battlefield quicker than Russia is. With consequences in Kupyansk, Izyum, Liman and Kherson that we have all witnessed.
It doesn’t matter that Ukraine’s economic mobilization isn’t that extensive and that American aid isn’t that vast on its own when Russia’s own industrial mobilization has been so utterly lethargic.
We are literally talking about a state that has not taken the steps in advance to ensure all mobiks have medkits with some gauze in them. A state that proclaims itself to be in an “existential” war and commands a PPP-adjusted $4.5 trillion economy with $130bn in yearly hydrocarbon earnings, but one in which it is left to the citizens to fundraise for the soldiers’ medkits, where the quality of mobik’s equipment varies wildly based on the region he hails from (because the central budget won’t pay for it), and which waited 7 months before it ever went to Iran for its excellent small drones. 7 months into a war Russia should have had its own plants to churn out these things by itself at scale. Instead it took it 7 months just to go to Iran and buy a small batch.
The Russian military tried to maintain the initiative on the battlefield for as long as it could have, bearing great sacrifices to do so. But when it comes to marshaling resources of the rear for the front the Kremlin has relinquished initiative to the Ukrainians and NATO from the start. In a war that the longer it lasts the less favorable the big picture is for Russia, the Kremlin is allowing Ukraine and the US all the time in the world to gear up way ahead of Russia.
What does it mean to be Moscow and to throw your military into Ukraine (piecemeal, just the contract component), then cut it off from reinforcements even as Ukraine and NATO are constantly adding more men and new equipment?
What does it mean to just stand by and watch, and not meaningfully reinforce your military as you then see it go from fast advances, to slow advances, to glacial advances, to stalemate, and finally to humiliating defeats?
What does it mean to wait until humiliating defeats until you move into action and mobilize the rear for the sake of the military and even then only in the most partial and limited way?
What is this? Is this some kind of a secret ploy to make NATO and Ukrainian nationalism look good?
I understand Putin’s MO where he does these minimal escalations and then he waits until they are completely and utterly exhausted before he will do another minimal escalation on his end. But in a war that is just pure poison. That is pretty much the exact opposite of how to win wars.
Look, I think what happened is that Kremlin went into the war with an extreme disconnect of ambition and means. I think that this disconnect is becoming smaller as the goals are made less ambitious and the investment into the war rises. But I think that of the two, the ambition is coming down much faster than investment in the war is rising.
I mean this is almost impossible to contradict. Putin has been much more willing to allow retreats than to gear up to the point that these retreats would not have been necessary. That he permitted even a retreat from Kherson which would have been invaluable to a spring push toward Odessa is telling.
Going back to Kherson, let’s not kid ourselves. What has been lost is greater than a historic city or the only regional capital Russia captured in this war. What has been lost is a right-bank bridgehead that was invaluable and Russia’s greatest accomplishment of this war. Capturing intact crossings over the Dnieper on the first day of the war was an incredible feat and incredible stroke of good luck. No one is ever going to capture an intact Dnieper crossing in this war ever again.
It was the kind of success that in a war you are looking to reinforce. Instead, in a microcosm of the entire war, the Russian army was starved of reinforcements even as Ukraine and NATO kept training more and more men for the other side, until the tide shifted and accomplishments paid for by blood had to be abandoned.
And that is how a year that started with the Eastern Military District in northern Kiev suburbs, the Central District in eastern Kiev suburbs, the Western District in Kupyansk, and the Southern District in Kherson ends with nothing but a Crimea land bridge to show for this entire war.
So by all means, praise the Kherson withdrawal as yielding to realities if you wish. But let us also be sincere about what reality precisely is being yielded to. The reality that Putin in his endless procrastination on the mobilization question had already lost Russia Kherson months ago. We just didn’t know it yet. (They didn’t tell us how bad the supply was.)
Let’s not fall for the distraction here. Surovikin is being praised for having made the correct and difficult military decision so that you would forget the reason he had to make one was that Putin for 7 months didn’t.
Excellent article Marko. I honestly think you are the best analyst of this war in English, at least on the pro-Russian side and quite possibly overall.
What is your expectation going forward? You said yourself that you come across as excessively pessimistic at the moment but are almost always proved too optimistic. I wonder if this is also the case now.
If Ukraine makes a successful push into Zaporozhye that brings the Kerch Bridge into Himars range, and if it concurrently shells the water canal to Crimea, wouldn’t we be looking at Crimea as a much bigger version of Kherson? And a retreat from Crimea would be the end of the Putin government and possibly of the Russian state.
I had doubts about Marko at the beginning of this war and I followed Saker and Martyanov. But now Marko looks like genius while Saker and Martyanov seem like charlatans. They hate the guts of Marko over there and won’t promote his work at their sites at all. Kudos to you Marko for getting it right.
“Capturing intact crossings over the Dnieper on the first day of the war was an incredible feat and incredible stroke of good luck.”
Possibly neither. There may be something to the claim that the bridge thing was a result of ‘treason’ on the Ukie side. The Russkie ability to conduct covert ops & access ‘sleeper’ units must have been quite strong at the start. Once the Ukies got serious about a ‘do or die’ attitude the weeding out of that matrix of agents would have given top priority.
A lot of things have proven ‘incredible’ about this little ‘police action’… and that lack of ‘credibility’ is showing up in spades now that voices from BOTH sides are shaking their heads in disbelief. There’s ‘poor performance’… and then there’s just outright incompetence, avoidance of responsibility, and broken chains of command.
No less than 4 – possibly 6 – battalions of RU infantry were left on the right bank WITHOUT instructions or notification of the retreat signal. Of those who are not right now being gradually picked up, winnowed out from the civilians wearing the same clothes… the majority are now floating head down somewhere on the river they tried to cross without transport. You might think a commander who allowed that kind of debacle to happen would be shot out of hand. In the RUF, however, they are more probably being being promoted and/or given (another) medal.
But regardless of all that – lets get down to the the meat and potatoes that cause our distinguished author almost daily ‘bewilderment’ nowadays.
The Russkie contempt for their (fellow Slavic)enemies is another ‘incredible’ in a sea of same. The inability to accord that Ukie enemy ANY possible measure of competence, esprit d’ corp, fighting grit or organizational ability has turned out to be the direct & MAJOR cause of the RU stumble after stumble.
If that wasn’t bad enough – there’ another – parallel vein of arrogance, contempt and misjudgment which seasons that already bitter brew – the contempt that the boyar of Muscovy & it’s upper crust of military command have for their own “minorities”… who oddly enough happen to be filling the ‘majority’ of slots in the trenches and front lines of this Keystone Kops humorless comedy.
The attitude is NOT going to be ‘adjusted.’ The whole “dogpatch” of RF is seething with anger and soon enough hatred for the jerk offs sending their men off to war without – a LOT MORE THAN JUST ‘GAUZE’ missing from their kit. For once Dugin has struck a right note, in claiming that the ‘czar’ is about to lose his ‘Louis the 14th’ noggin.
The only ‘adjustments’ likely to happen will be the notches on the guillotines or hangmans noose when these neo-Jacobin clowns get run down and thrown in the tumblers! It’s actually that far gone… but you won’t be reading about anywhere for quite some time.
I can’t see how Russia avoids defeat at this stage – forget about winning. Their best-trained, best-equipped units were wrecked at the start of this war. The newly mobilized men sent to replace them are an untrained rabble in a very sorry state. State budgets intended to modernize and update the Russian Armed Forces going back 20 years have done next to nothing of the sort, with all of the money disappearing to Heaven knows where. Russian officers are garbage tier.
Some say a back room deal has been struck between powers and that’s why withdrawal from Kherson began after the US midterm elections, that the entire affair is scripted. Is it? I have no idea but honestly why would Ukrainian forces stop now? Evidence suggests that covert demolitions teams and other specialized Ukrainian saboteur personnel are already setting up weapons, ammo, and explosives caches in and around Kursk and Belgorod for future use there, and that the war will be pushed further and further east in the months to come. And why wouldn’t they?
I really don’t see how Putin or his clique or even Russia itself can survive all of this. It looks as though the dominoes are going to continue to fall for a very long time to come, with a very different world on the other side of it.
with all of the money disappearing to Heaven knows where.
Judging from what I lived through & witnessed over the past 6-7 years, a sizeable stake of the state $ that did not get into the pockets of the usual suspects was dumped into an “information war” which was supposed to achieve it’s aims without the need of conventional military operations.
The incredible(yet another “incredible” tm) size and fervor of the troll army tasked with inveigling susceptible & naive westerlings into cheering their own devolution & demise was a constant wonder throughout that period. An even bigger wonder was that it seems nobody(saving this ‘nobody’)seemed to want to fight back against that agit-prop machine/Prigozhin St Pete’s boiler room.
Until the arrival of Marko&Riley… the internet was simply the preserve of the russo-talmudic troll army generaled by the :Faker/southfront/hooch o’er alabamie’ clique which made \death to amerika\ the operating mantra for a generation of silly pretend ‘right wing nationalist’ goof ups whose clear ‘end game’ was to push the west into a gigantic ‘JONESTOWN on steroids!’
Buying “Agent Orange/Prez Warp Speed” may have been a great investment at the time; he certainly proved himself the perfect foil to the Kenyan in one/two body blows to the Merikan body politic. But the great irony was that the Demoncrats would prove to be the best agents of the neo-trots after all!
“political parties” in quotes. Roger that.
>>>> “because his supplies are shot”
Oh those supply lines ! Since March 5 we hear about the supply lines —the wonder-weapon Germany developed in 1945 but didn’t have time to put to good use. 10 miles from the border the mighty invincible Tank Army ran out of fuel because of supply lines. If seven months later we still haven’t learned in military school how to supply-line, then this is an Argentinian Army —good only for peace-time parades, and fat paycheques, and all them chest ornaments.
Today (Nov 13) HIMAR and other systems are 50km closer to Crimea than 10 days ago. What will that do to the supply lines ?
>>>> “yielding to realities if you wish. But let us also be sincere about what reality precisely is being yielded to.”
If that is the case, accept and yield to the reality that the Armed Forces of Russia are really as bad as they appear. And stop this insanity that only helps NWO, and go home. If the army can (or are willing to) take and hold Kershon or Melitopol, or Kiev or Kramatorsk or Harkov, only if the commanders of the opposing army commit treason and allow you to waltz in, then Russia has no business being in the military super power racket. If on February 23 V.V. Putin didn’t know that going to war against Ukraine is going to war against NATO, then how did he get this far in life ? how did he become Grand-Protector of Mother Russia and Pan-Slavia ? where did he get the idea Russia is qualified to be in this league and is allowed to play ?
Since March 15 operation evanescence killed 50,000 Russian soldiers and ruined the lives of another 150,000 —only to be back where we were on March 15. In WW2 Russian generals caused the death of 1 or 2 million Russian soldiers, but at least those who survived got to see Berlin, rape German women, and got a fancy Red Square parade. Now the survivors of Shoigu-Putin’s grand strategy get to experience a successful retreat. —the problem is, you are not allowed to withdraw; this is not Afghanistan or Chechnia or Syria or Gruzia, this is a do or die war
If Russia is not willing to win this war (or if they don’t know how; or don’t know who and where the enemy is); not to worry, NATO is willing, and NATO knows.
Russia is now painted into a corner.
Unless Vladimir truely is a 5D chess-player of asymmetrical warfare, the outcome cannot be good. A coloured revolution in Petrograd and Moscow can easily follow.
…Or a nuclear war. What is the point of having them if they aren’t used? I am sure Khruschev or Brezhnev would have pressed the button by now.
More importantly, (any) military is simply an extension of its society.
Now, either Dugin just made a grave (pun intended) error, or, there are some people in correct positions to execute (pun intended) critical and necessary changes for Russia’s benefit. My take: 80/20.
Next couple of weeks will clarify it.
This is NOT a Ukraine war… Unfortunately the russians failed to destroy Kiev when the FUN started and today they are paying a heavy price for not doing so.
Funny thing is that China is doing the same strategic errors regarding Taiwan. It looks almost a perfect blueprint match to the errors done by Russia since 2014!
Today it seems that Russians should make a BETTER use of their missiles and use them against the dams North of Kiev… Since we’re arriving Winter time this could create wonderful natural ice platforms just in time for Christmas! No need to waste energy with the artificial ones…
I’ll make a prediction and a wager.
Russia has been waging an attrition war whereby they decided long ago to focus on troop count and equipment levels. Russia knows the cost of imported disparate weapons, trained front line soldiers and logistics. Ukraine is seeing issues in alll those regards. My prediction is the underbelly of Ukraine is weakening and winter is coming.
The ground will freeze and Russia will advance offensively. NATO, US and EU will be exposed and depleted. This will be over by June.
When time to start thinking OUT of this scam-fake-war-box we are in bc it does not add up! We need to broaden our scope. I know since yesterday that China was the second biggest investor of Ukraine…. and my bet is has to do with this triangle: USA – UkR – CHI
best analysis of kherson fiasco in English i have read.
balanced, Concrete and without “make up”.