The move was not entirely unexpected.
In a televised appearance on Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu – dressed in uniform and sitting next to General Sergei Surovikin, the head of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine – ordered Russian troops to withdraw to the east bank. The move would “save the lives of our military and combat capabilities,” Surovikin said.
The announcement followed weeks of costly Ukrainian claims in the south. It also came on the heels of Russia’s rapid and crushing loss of territory in the northeastern region of Kharkov in September.
But the speed of the withdrawal from the city surprised some Western officials. On Tuesday, US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had predicted that a Russian withdrawal from the city would take “days and maybe even weeks.”
Why is the city of Kherson important to Russia?
Kherson is located on the western bank of the Dnieper River. The region is located north of the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. In February, Russian troops poured in from Crimea and captured the city just days after the invasion began.
The city is home to a large shipbuilding industry and is a regional economic center. The Kherson region has since served as an important bridge between the peninsula and mainland Ukraine. This connection has enabled the movement of troops and military equipment. Kherson has a Soviet-era canal that supplies Crimea with water; in the northern spring, Russia turned it on again after Kiev blocked it in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists captured territory in eastern Ukraine.
What could happen next?
It remains unclear which parts of the Kherson region will remain under Russian control and whether Moscow plans to further withdraw its troops. However, Western officials have been cautiously optimistic about the withdrawal in recent days.
“It is encouraging to see how the brave Ukrainian troops are able to liberate more Ukrainian territory. . . But of course the support they get from the United Kingdom, from NATO allies and partners, is also essential,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday after meeting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London.
However, it does not mean that the war is over.
“This war is likely to continue for the foreseeable future,” said Seth Jones, head of the international security program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I see no light between what the Russians’ long-term goals in Ukraine are and Ukraine’s desire to preserve all lost territories [since] 2014.
“The Russians are taking a very long-term approach,” he said.
The Washington Post