Ukrainian forces have made significant progress on two fronts. In the northeast, Lyman was captured, one day after its “Russian forever” status was declared by the Kremlin as an annexed territory. More recently, in the south, Ukrainian forces managed to push back Russian troops from a large area north of the Dnipro river. The Russians simply abandoned dozens of towns they had defended for months.
This appears to be a smaller version of the large-scale panic that led to the Russian ouster of most of the Kharkiv Province in September — with some key differences. At the time, some commentators viewed the Ukrainian decision to carry out a swift offensive on the northeastern Kharkiv front — despite previously broadcasting an offensive near Kherson in the south — as a stroke of genius, a masterful deception for the ages.
As is often the case, the reality is more complex. September’s Kherson offensive was not meant as a diversion: Kherson province is critical to the Ukrainian economy and to challenge Russia’s Black Sea blockade.
Ukrainian advances are the product of new tactics that rely more heavily on lightly armored and fast-moving units, as well as on “holes” within the Russian defenses. This strategy worked in Kharkiv and is now working in Kherson. To be sure, there may be early signs of adaptation on the Russian part. When compared to the Kharkiv offensive, Russian forces may have been more deliberate and organized in their southern withdrawal, as suggested by some reports. There is, comparatively less evidence of panic and rout, though gauging such trends is difficult.
In Kherson, the moment of truth has yet to come: Russia’s army has rapidly collapsed as Ukrainian forces advanced, but soldiers can still hope to move back to safer positions. The cities of Nova Kakhovka and Kherson (on the Dnipro river) in particular are some of the most valuable targets in the area. The question is whether Russian forces will, indeed, defend those strategic cities sitting on opposite banks of the river. Over the past months, the Ukrainian military has consistently attacked bridges across the Dnipro, a river that poses a formidable natural obstacle to the movement of troops. The decisive moment will come when Russian soldiers occupying Kherson are faced with the stark choice of running for their lives, or fighting to the death with limited chances of escape.
On the strategic level in the northeast, a window of opportunity has opened in the wake of the initial Kharkiv offensive. After suffering one of the worst setbacks since its decision to pull out of Kyiv and much of northeastern Ukraine in April, the Kremlin has decided to double down on its “special operation”, in a move some may call the textbook definition of throwing good money after bad. The partial mobilization, the annexation of parts of Ukraine, and the nuclear saber rattling certainly indicate desperation.
In the West, this has raised concerns over what Putin might do if his army continues to run away. In Kyiv, however, the Ukrainian military has pursued a cold-headed strategy of pushing their advantage — which, after all, is how wars are won. It has (rightfully) assessed that now is the time to press the offensive and wrest back control of as much of occupied Ukraine as possible, before other factors like the weather limit Ukraine’s freedom of maneuver. Other considerations include Russia’s callup of men, whose low morale, poor training and equipment will have limited use on the battlefield, but could still act as a “meat shield” in some areas.
Perhaps more concerning for Ukraine is the clear attempt by Putin to pressure the West into constructing a long-discussed “off-ramp.” Faced with setbacks on the ground, the Kremlin has sought to up the ante through annexation and talk of nuclear war.
The fact that this — rather than the Russian army — is now considered by Putin and his aides as the best hope for its war of conquest says much about its actual chance of success. The Kherson offensive has shown that if the West sticks with Ukraine and remains cool-headed, victory is possible.
As the saying goes, facts are stubborn. And no number of threatening words can cover up the reality that Russia has suffered a growing litany of actual military defeats.
Michael Horowitz is a geopolitical and conflict analyst, as well as the head of the analyst team at Le Beck International. As such he and his team advise multiple companies and NGOs operating in Ukraine following Russia’s invasions. Michael’s commentary and analysis can also be found in multiple international and regional outlets, including major publications like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, NBC, AP, and elsewhere.