EXPLANATOR: How important is a Russian retreat from Kherson?

Ukrainian officials said Friday that Ukrainian flags were appearing “en masse and everywhere”, following Russia’s withdrawal from the southern region of Kherson, one of four regions of Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin has annexed. in September.

The months-long Ukrainian offensive to retake the city of Kherson, the only provincial capital under Russian control since the first days of the invasion, is coming to a head. The fall of the city would inflict another humiliation on Moscow after a series of battlefield defeats and other setbacks.

Here’s a look at what’s going on and why Kherson is such an important city for both sides.

WHY IS THE CITY SUCH A PRICE?

Kherson, which had a pre-war population of 280,000, is the only regional capital to be captured by Russian forces. The city and surrounding area fell to Moscow in the early days of the war as Russian troops quickly pushed their attack north from the Crimean peninsula – the region illegally annexed by the Kremlin in 2014.

Its loss was a blow to Ukraine due to its location on the Dnieper near the mouth of the Black Sea and its role as a major industrial center. Since then, Ukrainian resistance fighters have challenged Russian troops for control of the city, with acts of sabotage and assassinations of Moscow-appointed officials.

Kherson is also at a point where Ukraine can cut off fresh water from the Dnieper to Crimea. Kyiv blocked these vital supplies after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and Putin mentioned the need to restore them as one of the reasons for his decision to invade Ukraine.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

Over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian troops have made gains northwest, west and northeast of the city of Kherson, advancing up to 7 kilometers (4 miles) in some areas, according to the ‘Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. Tank.

“The Russians have taken positions which they hope will be easier to defend. Ukraine will have to decide if, when and how to keep pushing,” said Olga Oliker, director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group. “But Ukraine looks set to recover…and that’s very good news for Mykolaiv, which Russia will now have a much harder time bombing. This is a serious Ukrainian breakthrough.”

WHAT HAVE THE UKRAINIAN TROOPS FOUND?

Kherson’s Ukrainian regional official, Serhii Khlan, said that when Russia withdrew its troops from the west bank of the river that divides the region, they left wreckage in their wake, destroying key infrastructure, including electrical installations and bridges.

“Everything will have to be rebuilt,” he said during a video briefing on Friday. “As they fled, they blew up everything, anything that could impede the (Ukrainian) advance.”

Khlan advised civilians to stay at home and said the humanitarian situation was really complicated, with power cuts and very limited communications.

WHAT DOES THE KREMLIN SAY?

The Kremlin remained defiant on Friday, insisting that battlefield developments in the Kherson region were in no way an embarrassment to Putin.

Fearing such a massive Ukrainian counterattack, the Kremlin-installed regional administration in Kherson reportedly displaced at least 70,000 residents earlier this month.

WHAT WILL THE LOSS OF KHERSON MEAN FOR RUSSIA?

A retreat from Kherson and other areas on the west bank of the Dnieper would dash Russian hopes of pushing an offensive west towards Mykolaiv and Odessa to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. Moscow had also hoped to build a land corridor to the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova, which is home to a major Russian military base.

“The loss of Kherson will crush all those southern Kremlin dreams to dust,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. “Kherson is a key to the entire southern region, which would allow Ukraine to target key supply routes for Russian forces. The Russians will try to keep it under control by all means.

WHAT WILL KHERSON’S RECAPTURE MEAN FOR UKRAINE?

For Ukraine, capturing Kherson would set the stage for reclaiming the Russian-occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region and other southern areas, and ultimately pushing back into Crimea.

Regaining control of Kherson would also mean that Kyiv could once again cut Crimea’s water supply.

“After the Kherson vacancy, the Russians will again have problems with fresh water in Crimea,” Zhdanov added.

WHAT WILL CHINA THINK?

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based independent think tank Penta Center, noted that control of the Kherson region and other southern regions was a major prize for Russia and that their loss would have painful consequences for Putin in the country and abroad.

“If the Russians leave Kherson, the Kremlin will face a new wave of fierce criticism of the military command and the authorities in general from ultra-patriotic circles,” Fesenko said, adding that the city’s fall would further demoralize the Russian armed forces and perhaps fuel opposition to the mobilization effort.

He also said China and India would view the fall of Kherson as a sign of Kremlin weakness.

“Putin will face reputational losses not only inside the country, but also in the eyes of China, and this could be particularly dangerous for the Kremlin,” Fesenko said.

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Christi C. Elwood