Any war is not only a chronicle of battles. There are many events that cannot be explained linearly. One of them was the abandonment of the right bank of the Dnieper by Russian troops.
The capture of Kherson
The western part of the Kherson region was occupied by Russian troops due to the fact that the Ukrainian troops were unable to block/destroy the bridges across the Dnieper. From this foothold, the invading forces tried to continue the offensive in the direction of Mykolaiv and to the north. However, they were stopped by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And soon the Russians switched to the defense of the occupied territories.
Since the summer, Ukrainian troops have been exerting pressure on the Kherson grouping of Russian troops, shackling the most combat-ready units of the Russian army on the bridgehead.
According to foreign and Ukrainian experts, the basis of the Kherson group was the Russian Airborne Forces. Ukrainian sources claimed that almost the entire combat-ready component of the Russian Airborne Forces was concentrated on the right bank of the Dnieper.
In order to reduce the combat effectiveness of the Russian grouping, Ukrainian forces, at the first opportunity, began to strike at the logistics routes through the Dnieper. Which at some point created serious problems for the Russian command.
The strange decision
On November 9, 2022, the Russian military command publicly announced the decision to withdraw its troops from the right bank of the Dnieper. The motives were:
— difficulties with the supply of the Russian forces due to strikes on the logistics infrastructure across the river;
— the possibility of using the withdrawn troops in other sectors of the front, including for offensive operations.
Both of these points are actually not as straightforward as they seem.
Despite attacks on bridges and crossings across the Dnieper, the Russians managed to establish a sufficient flow of supplies both for its grouping on the right bank and for the civilian population. At least in Kherson there were no problems with basic food products, food and fuel cards were not introduced. Despite the fact that in this part of the region there were up to 250 thousand civilians.
In addition to ferry crossings, Antonovsky Bridge continued to function, albeit with restrictions on the mass of transport. At least such a conclusion follows from the circumstances of its destruction:
— the Ukrainian side claims that the bridge was collapsed as a result of Ukrainian missiles hitting a car with ammunition that was crossing the bridge as part of a Russian military convoy;
— The Russian side claims that it itself blew up the bridge to prevent the penetration of Ukrainian troops to the left eastern bank of the Dnieper.
Regardless of whose version is true, both of them testify that the bridge was damaged, but functioned.
Also, Russian troops managed to organise the transportation of goods and personnel through the Kakhovskaya hydroelectric power station.
At the same time, field main pipelines were installed across the Dnieper to supply fuel and lubricants to the right bank. This reduced the need for transportation across the river.
At the same time, measures were taken to “rationalise” the grouping of troops on the right bank in order to reduce the required scale of logistics:
— Rear and auxiliary units were assigned to the eastern coast.
— Back in September, large-calibre artillery was moved there as well, which was supposed to support the right-bank grouping with fire. For this, Russian positions were moved closer to Kherson and to the artillery.
— During October, a partial evacuation of the civilian population was carried out. The Russian side claims that it was of a voluntary nature and more than 80 thousand people were taken out.
So the difficulties of supplying the right-bank group were objectively not critical.
According to the Ukrainian military command, the right-bank grouping of Russian troops numbered about 40,000 people. The basis of the troops, as mentioned above, was the Airborne Forces. In fact, it was the most combat-ready grouping of Russian troops in Ukraine.
This estimate of the number seems to be close to reality. The Russian command claims that 30,000 Russian servicemen were withdrawn from the right bank.
The possibility of using withdrawn troops for an offensive on another sector of the front is a dubious argument. As a result of the abandonment of Kherson, not only Russia got additional forces not involved into battle in this place. Around the Kherson bridgehead, the Ukrainian Defense Forces have concentrated at least 15 army brigades. The staff number of which exceeds 80 thousand people. That is, as a result of the liberation of Kherson, Ukraine got a greater number of troops released.
The Russians obviously were forming a stable and impressive grouping for long-term defence. Which would rely on three lines of fortifications, defence nodes inside settlements on the right bank and artillery support from the left bank.
But at some point the decision was changed.
What the media are silent about?
In late October — early November, Russian paratroopers began to withdraw from the right bank of the Dnieper. They were replaced by units formed from the newly mobilised Russians.
It seemed rational. Paratroopers are the strike force. And for urban and trench battles, the mobilised troops could well have been enough.
But it is interesting that the assigned units of the Airborne Forces have not yet appeared at the front. Ukrainian military intelligence, known for its media activity, for some reason does not clarify this issue.
But this is not the most interesting thing. It turns out that even before the announcement of the Russian retreat, the Ukrainian command began to withdraw its units to other sectors of the front.
Further, although Ukrainian sources talk a lot about the work of their artillery on the retreating Russian units, the results of these strikes on any significant scale are not supported by objective evidence. There is no photo-video of the “killing fields” of Russian armoured vehicles due to Ukrainian artillery strikes during the withdrawal of Russian troops.
Just as there is no evidence that a noticeable amount of Russian equipment was captured. Unlike the situation with the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region. There, the Ukrainians captured equipment for almost two mechanised brigades. And near Kherson – for the company.
The foregoing allows us to guess why the Russian command made the decision to withdraw troops publicly: the Russian generals were confident that this would not cause them any problems.
It is also interesting to pay attention to the fact that on the third day after the liberation of Kherson, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky visited the city. Despite the fact that the city is within range of Russian artillery. The city itself is large, partially abandoned by residents. Both enemy saboteurs and spotters could remain there. But this did not confuse the guards of the Ukrainian leader.
The withdrawal of Russian troops from the right bank of the Dnieper aroused a “turbo-patriotic” public in Russia. There was a theory of a treacherous “agreement” between the Kremlin and Kyiv. The Ukrainian authorities angrily rejected that: there is no room for agreements with the aggressor.
Basically, yes and no. An agreement on the war as a whole is now impossible between Kyiv and Moscow. But there may be local, thematic deals. There are the mechanisms for the exchange of prisoners of war, even significant ones (commanders of the defence of Mariupol). For a long time there was no disturbing news about the Zaporizhzhya NPP. The “grain deal” has been extended. So on certain issues, the enemies can find common ground. But only if there are intermediaries. And the mediator has his own interest.
Here we pay attention to the information of recent weeks that Washington suddenly wanted more flexibility from Kyiv on the issue of negotiations with Russia. A certain plan for a peaceful settlement appears, according to which Ukraine receives everything at once. And Crimea will be returned later, after 7 years.
Even one of the American hawks, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, Mark Milley, speaks of the negotiations. In response, the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Forces of Ukraine, General Valery Zaluzhny, publicly announced his position expressed during a telephone conversation with Mr. Milley: the Ukrainian army does not accept any territorial concessions and compromises with Russia. Such a statement by a military leader on political issues indirectly indicates the seriousness of the situation. By the way, who was the initiator of this conversation?
Further, the head of the CIA, William Burns, goes to Kyiv to meet with Volodymir Zelensky immediately after negotiations with the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin. He went not just to Kyiv, but to Kyiv, which was under Russian missile attacks on the day of the visit. Obviously, the issues were urgent. And they can only be discussed at a personal meeting between Burns and Zelensky.
In general, the United States can be recognized as a mediator in Kherson history by indirect signs. But what is the interest of the parties in this whole story?
On tactical and strategic interests
Locally, in the story of Kherson, Ukraine received an undestroyed regional centre, saved the lives of its soldiers and scarce military equipment. As well as removed part of the threats to Mykolaiv. As a bonus, there are political and psychological benefits from the liberation of the only regional centre captured by the Russians at the first stage of the war.
The Kremlin receives a serious image blow, but retains the troops that were on the Kherson bridgehead. Perhaps, from the point of view of the generals, the latter is more important than the former. Political and military strategies are often opposed. But Vladimir Putin is a politician and commander in chief. Without his decision, the withdrawal of troops would not have taken place. This means that he had political reasons for that. Moreover, the Kherson region was annexed by the Kremlin. As it was said — “forever”. But there were serious political reasons to change the decision.
Further, almost simultaneously with the abandonment of Kherson by the Russians, the West began to remove restrictions on the export of Russian food and fertilisers. Here it is worth recalling that Russia exports one and a half times more food products than weapons. Negotiations have begun on lifting some of the restrictions on international settlements through the Russian Agricultural Bank, which serves Russian food exports.
What is the US interest? Clearly, they are not going to loosen the noose on the Putin regime.
Here it is worth paying attention to 2 points.
Firstly, the Russian Airborne Forces are not only a strike force. But also the reserve of the supreme commander-in-chief – the president of the Russian Federation. It can be assumed that this reserve was needed or may be needed in the foreseeable future in another place. Not in Ukraine. Of course, the Airborne Forces could be withdrawn to Russia to form a new strike force of Russian troops on their basis due to replenishment with mobilised ones. These formations could be subsequently re-sent to the front.
Secondly, the Minister of Agriculture of Russia is Dmitry Patrushev. Who is tipped to be the successor of V. Putin. And they consider him a person acceptable to the West. Progress in this matter cannot be ruled out. The Airborne Forces can participate in providing the power part of the “Transit” operation. The United States will show political favour to the new Russian administration. In this case, statements from Washington about the possibility of new Ukrainian-Russian negotiations become clear. Which should end with the retreat of Russia from Ukraine even under the presidency of V. Putin. So that the new Russian president can start from scratch. Without the legacy of the damned past in the form of a war with Ukraine and deaf isolation from the West.
This is just a hypothesis. But so far there is no other one that could explain the Russian retreat from the right bank of the Dnieper. Despite the fact that the Russians were preparing for its defence and could defend the city for a long time.