Russia’s Army Keeps Collapsing After Falling Back in Kherson

Ukraine has made huge inroads in the south and east.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian service members are seen in Kherson.
Russian service members are seen in Kherson.
Russian service members are seen on a roadside in the Kherson region on May 19 amid Russia’s ongoing military action in Ukraine. Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s latest military collapse happened like bankruptcy: gradually and then suddenly.

For weeks, Ukraine had been using U.S.- and European-provided multiple launch rocket systems and artillery to systematically cut the bridges in Russian-occupied Kherson and wear down its troops with short, probing attacks. Once the Russians were pinned down and cut off, Ukrainian forces went in for the kill. Between Sunday and Tuesday, Ukrainian forces recaptured at least 10 villages, pushing south toward Kherson, the heart of one of Russia’s so-called annexed areas.

“For the moment, they are retreating very fast,” Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker, told Foreign Policy. “We can say [they are] running, trying to create new lines closer to Kherson. So now this is the race between the Ukrainians continuing to attack all of them, trying to make a new defensive line.” 

Russia’s latest military collapse happened like bankruptcy: gradually and then suddenly.

For weeks, Ukraine had been using U.S.- and European-provided multiple launch rocket systems and artillery to systematically cut the bridges in Russian-occupied Kherson and wear down its troops with short, probing attacks. Once the Russians were pinned down and cut off, Ukrainian forces went in for the kill. Between Sunday and Tuesday, Ukrainian forces recaptured at least 10 villages, pushing south toward Kherson, the heart of one of Russia’s so-called annexed areas.

“For the moment, they are retreating very fast,” Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker, told Foreign Policy. “We can say [they are] running, trying to create new lines closer to Kherson. So now this is the race between the Ukrainians continuing to attack all of them, trying to make a new defensive line.” 

Coming just days after a Ukrainian breakthrough in the east, success in the south was unexpected. Ukrainian forces were up against allegedly elite Russian Airborne Forces, known as the VDV, who had reportedly begun refusing to fight late in the summer after getting absolutely creamed in Kyiv. Goncharenko said Russia had concentrated some of its top units around Kherson in late summer as it prepared for a counteroffensive that Ukraine’s military telegraphed for weeks. 

Russia might be able to dig in around Kherson itself, a major shipbuilding hub near the intersection of the Dnipro and Inhulets rivers that was overwhelmed by Russian forces early in the war. But the collapse of Russian lines around the city is indicative of Ukraine’s increasing edge in firepower and trained troops, experts said. 

Russia normally relies on firepower and conscripts. When both fail, as they did at Kherson, armies flee. 

“The Russians have been overwhelmingly dependent on artillery to protect themselves throughout the conflict, and [in] Kherson obviously there’s a limit to how much artillery they can support because of the logistical constraints of getting materiel across the river and because of the threat to the supply dumps they would need to establish to fuel their guns,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. “[Ukraine’s military] have basically turned it into a killing area for Russia’s more motivated troops.”

Russia has traditionally used its strategic depth to win time. What’s unusual is to try that in occupied territory under long-range fire.

“Fundamentally, they are trading ground for time,” Watling said of Russia’s emerging strategy. “The question is how long the Russians can take the hammer because there’s an unfavorable concentration of artillery and it’s fairly accurate in that area.” The Ukrainian strategy, Watling said, is to grind down the Russian units in the area without a large number of troops that have combined arms capabilities. 

Russia has announced a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 men—though the traffic jams at all of Russia’s borders wax eloquent. On Monday, a senior U.S. military official said the U.S. Defense Department had not seen a large-scale movement of Russian forces into Ukraine in recent weeks despite losing major pockets of ground in the east and south of the country. 

“They are fighting, obviously, but they’re in a defensive crouch,” the senior U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon, told reporters of Russia’s game plan. Another Pentagon official, Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense, told reporters on Tuesday that the Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kherson had gained “significant” new ground in the past 24 hours. 

Experts and officials are also questioning how much the Kremlin is interfering in any effort to salvage the situation militarily. The New York Times reported late last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin told his commanders that Russian forces cannot retreat from Kherson.

“That’s what’s causing all of the problems now,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and a former U.S. Marine Corps officer. “What would have made sense probably is if they had abandoned everything on the other side of the Dnipro and they set up more sustainable front lines you could hold for a long time. They didn’t do that. Now, they’re at risk of losing multiple areas at the same time.”

The renewed gains, adding to more than 2,000 square miles of Russian-occupied ground that Ukraine has retaken from discombobulated Russian troops in the eastern Kharkiv region in the past month, also comes as the West, particularly the United States, is hurrying to provide more military aid to Kyiv. On Tuesday, the Biden administration said it would send $625 million more in military aid to Ukraine, including four more High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that Ukrainian troops have used to isolate Russian forces on the right bank of the Dnipro River near Kherson, and 16 105mm howitzer artillery pieces. 

But Ukrainian officials said they still need Western tanks, such as German Leopards or American Abrams. And while Ukraine has used HIMARS to good effect, it still hasn’t received many. The long-range U.S. Army Tactical Missile System, which has been held back over escalation concerns in the Biden administration, could make U.S.-supplied HIMARS truly impactful against Russia’s ammunition dumps far from the front lines.

“You need tanks to go ahead and long-range missiles will give us the possibility to hit their logistics on the other bank of the Dnipro, not giving them the opportunity to send armor and everything else, fuel, to their troops,” said Goncharenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker. “If their troops on the right bank do not receive anything, they will collapse.” 

Cooper, the Pentagon official, suggested that Ukraine could hit the “vast majority” of Russian battlefield targets with ​​the so-called Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System that the United States has already provided, which has a range of about 40 miles. 

Watling, the British defense expert, suggested that a Russian military collapse was perhaps further in the distance than Ukrainian officials are hoping, consolidating around Kherson—barring a psychological collapse. But in Kyiv, leading members of parliament believe that the Ukrainian military can move faster—if Washington provides more help. 

“Ukraine should not copy their mistake of March,” Goncharenko said. “At that moment, we had a possibility to finish everything after the Russians were retreating after the failed blitzkrieg. Now, we have this momentum.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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