Ukraine Pushes Russia Out of Kherson, the Biggest Liberation Yet

Ukraine is continuing its offensive—even in subzero temperatures.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian artillery unit members get prepared to fire toward Kherson amid Russia's military invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian artillery unit members get prepared to fire toward Kherson amid Russia's military invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian artillery unit members get prepared to fire toward Kherson amid Russia's military invasion of Ukraine on Oct. 28. Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a rare live televised speech, said Wednesday that Russian troops would retreat from the west bank of the Dnipro River and give up the provincial capital of Kherson, the one regional capital they’d managed to capture in nearly nine months of fighting. Russian officials confessed that their supply lines were in jeopardy from the continued Ukrainian assault, giving Kyiv the victory it has so desperately sought after several months of major offensives on two fronts.

Coming just a day after Democrats had a better-than-expected result in the U.S. midterm elections, the battlefield victory gives Ukraine hope of more Western aid as Congress prepares to debate a lame-duck military aid package before the new Congress is sworn in next January. Though some U.S. and Ukrainian officials aren’t ruling out the possibility that Shoigu’s order could be a feint, the Russian retreat—if it proves real—would also be a political blow for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kherson Oblast was one of the sections of Ukraine that Russia pretended to annex in faux referendums this fall, vowing that “Russian” territory would never be surrendered.

The Ukrainian victory in the bloody counteroffensive into Kherson, which was captured by Russian forces just days into the war, showed just how much the Ukrainians had flipped the script from Putin’s prewar buildup. Unlike the lightning offensive into Russian-occupied areas of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian troops didn’t have the benefit of surprise in the south. Bit by bit, taking losses and lumps, Ukraine wore down Russian forces and supply lines backed with U.S.-provided rockets and NATO-standard artillery.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a rare live televised speech, said Wednesday that Russian troops would retreat from the west bank of the Dnipro River and give up the provincial capital of Kherson, the one regional capital they’d managed to capture in nearly nine months of fighting. Russian officials confessed that their supply lines were in jeopardy from the continued Ukrainian assault, giving Kyiv the victory it has so desperately sought after several months of major offensives on two fronts.

Coming just a day after Democrats had a better-than-expected result in the U.S. midterm elections, the battlefield victory gives Ukraine hope of more Western aid as Congress prepares to debate a lame-duck military aid package before the new Congress is sworn in next January. Though some U.S. and Ukrainian officials aren’t ruling out the possibility that Shoigu’s order could be a feint, the Russian retreat—if it proves real—would also be a political blow for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kherson Oblast was one of the sections of Ukraine that Russia pretended to annex in faux referendums this fall, vowing that “Russian” territory would never be surrendered.

The Ukrainian victory in the bloody counteroffensive into Kherson, which was captured by Russian forces just days into the war, showed just how much the Ukrainians had flipped the script from Putin’s prewar buildup. Unlike the lightning offensive into Russian-occupied areas of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian troops didn’t have the benefit of surprise in the south. Bit by bit, taking losses and lumps, Ukraine wore down Russian forces and supply lines backed with U.S.-provided rockets and NATO-standard artillery.

“Even though they were taking losses, they kept fighting,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia program and a former U.S. Marine Corps officer. “They pursued this offensive regardless. That kind of tells you something about their determination, and obviously morale, too.”

The tables had turned in more ways than one. Ukraine’s encirclement of Kherson, a city with a prewar population of nearly 300,000, left Russian soldiers with their backs against the wall—almost literally—forced to make a contested crossing over the Dnipro River. Western officials and military analysts wondered whether the encircled troops would have a chance to fight another day.

“The stated reason [for the withdrawal] from Defense Minister Shoigu was that they could not supply their troops, a surprising admission for an army that was, less than a year ago, considered to be the army of a superpower,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. “It clearly is not.”

Getting the remaining troops and their equipment over the river is likely to be a big risk for the Russian military, a throwback to Russia’s failure to throw pontoon bridges across the Siversky Donets river in the eastern Donbas region during village-to-village fighting back in May. But if they can get across, they will have a new line of defense just in time for winter. “If they conduct an effective withdrawal, the war is more likely to be protracted. Russia will have a useful physical barrier—the Dnipro,” Lee said. “The more chaotic this is, the greater of a defeat it is.”

Ukrainian officials, reportedly under increasing pressure from the United States to consider eventual peace talks with Russia, are keen to disrupt any river crossing. If Russia does indeed leave the city, and Ukrainians are able to advance in time, Ukrainian officials believe they could destroy Russian forces crossing the river, akin to the annihilation of bridging troops in Donbas. And it would put Crimea, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself hopes to visit after the war, just about 20 miles outside of Ukraine’s maximum rocket range.

“We don’t have any agreement between the Ukrainian and Russian side to let them peacefully leave the city,” said one Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about ongoing operations. “I hope that we will use this possibility and that we will strike Russian troops. We’re not just going to stop on the banks of the Dnipro,” the official added.

Russia can ill afford the losses, with the ceded ground in Kherson putting more of the Kremlin’s troops in the 50-plus-mile range of Ukrainian-operated High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) missiles. In other parts of the occupied Kherson province, Russia has reinforced its ranks with more brigades of troops and engineers.

But even though Ukrainian troops are still raring to advance in the frigid temperatures, intelligence officials remain wary of the situation in Kherson, which is believed to be heavily mined by departing Russian troops, a tactic that dates back to the Second World War and one that has been used heavily in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine to sow death and dismemberment for Ukrainians returning home. Troops will have to wait to seize the city until it is relatively clear of mines and booby traps, the Ukrainian military official said.

More U.S. help may also have to wait. On Tuesday, Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s policy chief, told reporters that arming Ukraine had begun to take a toll on Western ammunition stockpiles. There’s also been no signal from the Biden administration that the longer-range U.S. Army Tactical Missile System, which can be fired from truck-mounted HIMARS cannons, are coming any time soon, even as Congress could push for more than $50 billion in aid to Ukraine during the lame duck.

Still, with more of the country back in Ukrainian hands, officials in Kyiv were breathing easier on Wednesday about haggling with Western officials over military aid.

“If they can take back more territory—and they now have this entire bank of Kherson—they’re now in a stronger position,” Lee said.

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

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