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 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.