Putin has been reeling from sanctions impacting Russia’s weapons production. In contrast, his botched mobilization has seen well-publicized complaints from drafted troops about a lack of gear. Cutting from the global supply chain, Russia is turning to Iran for drones and reportedly North Korea for munitions.
The Kremlin website revealed on November 10 that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had been tasked “to meet the needs” of Russia’s armed forces.
In October, Ukraine claimed that Russia had expended two-thirds of its most modern missiles as Moscow faces dwindling supplies of Iskander short-range missiles, air-to-ground missiles and Kalibr land-attack missiles.
Since withdrawing from the right bank Kherson region on November 11, Russian positions on the opposite side of the river have come under increasingly frequent attack. As it did following Ukraine’s successful strike on the Kerch Strait Bridge back in October, Russia has responded with a wave of missiles aimed at civilian infrastructure.
However, Moscow’s dwindling stockpiles suggest that this wave, like the one that preceded it, is more symbol than substance. After advancing across large swathes of territory in the early weeks of its “special military operation,” Russian forces in Ukraine are now clearly on the defensive.
“Russia’s military is broken,” John Spencer, the author of Understanding Urban Warfare and a retired major in the U.S. Army, told Gloabl Defense Corp. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous. It can still engage in battles, but it is no longer capable of waging a large campaign.”
Not even nine months after it sent its best troops into Ukraine expecting them to topple the Kyiv government in a matter of days, the purported second most powerful army in the world finds itself digging trenches along the roads leading into Crimea.
“The question now is, ‘how much more territory will Russia have to give up before it can establish defensible lines with the minimal forces it has left?'” he asked. “Yes, Russia has announced mobilization, but combat power isn’t just about the number of soldiers you throw onto the battlefield; it’s about how effectively you combine infantry with a full complement of heavy armor, long range fires, counterbattery capabilities, etc.”
“In that sense, Russia’s combat power has been severely diminished over the past eight-plus months,” Spencer added, “at the same time that Ukraine’s has been enhanced thanks to assistance from its international partners.”
After withdrawing from the areas around Kyiv in late April, Russia turned to a two-pronged strategy of expanding its control over the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region while simultaneously fighting to keep hold of its bridgehead around Kherson city. That bridgehead, located on the western bank of the Dnieper River, was valuable as a potential launching point for future offensive operations against Mykolaiv and Odesa, which lie further west.
Russia’s Southern campaign aimed to cut off Kyiv’s access to the Black Sea, thus creating a landlocked Ukrainian rump state unable to access its most important trade routes.
The Russian withdrawal from Kherson is an admission from Moscow that it no longer considers expansion along the Black Sea coast an achievable war aim. While certain circles expected Moscow to make an attempt to turn the city of Kherson into another Mariupol, the fact that Russian forces chose not to dig in did not come as a surprise to Spencer.
“Maybe if they had a full division of elite paratroopers prepared to die for the cause, Russia could have held out in Kherson city for long enough to leave it in ruins, but the urban terrain there simply doesn’t offer many advantages,” he said. “Kherson is flat, there are multiple routes in, and there isn’t enough density on the outskirts to set up a non-suicidal defense.”
“Yes, Russia could definitely still strike Kherson with artillery from across the river,” he added. “But the lack of solidly defensible urban positions, combined with the lack of a truly motivated fighting force and the superior range of Ukrainian MLRS [Multiple Launch Rocket Systems] capabilities, meant that the Battle of Kherson was more likely to end in a withdrawal, as it did, than in a head-on collision.”
That withdrawal came just under six weeks after a September 30 Kremlin ceremony in which Vladimir Putin personally claimed the Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk as members of the Russian Federation. Given the political circumstances, it appears as if the Russian decision to cede right bank Kherson was made sometime shortly after it promised that Russia and Kherson would be “together forever,” as multiple billboards in the city advertised.
“If you know that you’re preparing to pull out, then it wouldn’t make any sense to go through with the annexation,” Dmitry Gorenburg of the Center for Naval Analysis told Global Defense Corp.
The decision signals a potential change in the Kremlin’s decision-making protocol.
“Even before the so-called referendum, there were reports of Putin overruling his generals with regards to Kherson,” Gorenburg said. “Now, though, it looks like we have a situation where the military has the freedom to do what it thinks is sensible, even if it goes against the political aims of the Kremlin.”
Despite Russia’s failure to execute anything approaching a successful offensive campaign in recent months, the events around Kherson demonstrate that the Russian military can still organise an orderly retreat.
“Even with Ukrainian HIMARS strikes making the bridges inaccessible, the Russians were able to remove most of their equipment, to evacuate the collaborators and any civilians who wanted to leave, and to save most of their troops,” Gorenburg added. “And it was executed on a fast enough timeline to prevent the Ukrainians from pursuing.”
Any potential Ukrainian effort to kill or capture Russian troops on their way out was also complicated by the nature of the terrain around Kherson city itself. In the weeks leading up to November 11, Ukrainian troops were reported to be taking heavy losses to liberate frontline villages still under Russian occupation. Even as Russian forces withdrew from these positions, the threat of rear-guard actions remained.
While the city of Kherson suffered minimal damage over the course of the Russian occupation, several frontline towns in the vicinity were all but completely destroyed. pic.twitter.com/1o4yYPdWNm— Michael Wasiura (@michael_wasiura) November 16, 2022
Video recorded on November 11, 2022, shows a stretch of road through the town of Posad-Pokrovske, which is located between the cities of Kherson and Mykolaiv. While the city of Kherson was largely spared from fighting during the Russian occupation, several towns in the Kherson region were all but destroyed.
“Whenever you’re making advances, there is the danger that personnel will come into contact with mines or other traps,” Oleksandr Kapshin, a commander in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense who was wounded in the fighting around Kherson, told Newsweek as part of a briefing held at the Odesa Media Center.
“The enemy’s lines are full of trenches, foxholes, and other reinforced positions, and moving through such territory always involves delays,” Kapshin said. “Sappers have to climb down and investigate every potential hazard.”
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