Media Criticism Patrick Lawrence Russia-Ukraine

Patrick Lawrence: Why Are the Russians Retreating in Ukraine?

A still image taken from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry purporting to show Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, right, listening to Gen. Sergei Surovikin, left, at the Joint Russian Forces command center in Ukraine on Wednesday. Credit...Russian Defence Ministry/EPA, via Shutterstock
A still image taken from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry purporting to show Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, right, listening to Gen. Sergei Surovikin, left, at the Joint Russian Forces command center in Ukraine on Wednesday.Credit…Russian Defence Ministry/EPA, via Shutterstock

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

The most opaque war in my lifetime and probably yours, the war we can hardly see because the reporting is so bad, just took an unexpected turn. There must be someone somewhere who anticipated the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson, the key Ukrainian city along the southern end of the Dnieper River, but I haven’t run across such a person. Russia’s move certainly came as an abrupt surprise to me.

How shall we understand this development? What comes now? As we attempt answers, it is important neither to underestimate nor overestimate the significance of Russia’s withdrawal from the only provincial capital it has held since its intervention began last February.

The New York Times ran a piece covering this development last Thursday. It is worth reading for some of the detail the reporter included; it also has a map of the Kherson region and a useful photograph of the Dnieper River that shows Kherson City on the west bank and the east bank opposite, to which Russian troops have retreated.

Straight off the top, it would be incautious to conclude that Russia’s pullback across the Dnieper represents a dramatic turn in the course of the Ukraine conflict. We heard this kind of thing last summer, when the Armed forces of Ukraine made swift territorial advances in northeastern Ukraine. The AFU is beating back the Russians, we read. Victory is suddenly within the Kyiv regime’s grasp. Only gradually did it emerge that Russian forces had abandoned the northeast and the AFU had shadow-boxed an enemy who was no longer there.

No one seems to be trying this one on in the Kherson case, which is wise. There was no “Battle of Kherson,” no Stalingrad revisited, as Ukrainian propagandists have put it about in recent weeks. As of Friday morning there were no Russian troops left in Kherson, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, and none in the surrounding region on the river’s west bank.

I don’t see any caviar-eating surrender monkeys here. This looks like a tactical retreat ordered by people who study maps, not newspaper headlines. Based on what we know, it is likely to have little impact on the long-term course of the war. In my reckoning, the odds are no more in Kyiv’s favor now than they were a week back.

Let there be no question: The Kherson withdrawal is a far bigger deal for Russia than the events to the north last summer. Russian forces took Kherson early in the war because it was key to advancing elsewhere, notably to Odessa, the historic, significant Black Sea port. Kherson is a big shipbuilding center and was founded in the 1770s by Grigory Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s lover and empire builder. So, practical value and cultural and historical significance all at once.

I was immediately interested to note how Moscow announced its decision to pull troops out of Kherson. This was last Wednesday, when Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, conferred with the Russian military’s top officers. Among these was Sergei Surovikin, the general who was named the overall commander of the Ukraine operation just a few weeks ago. 

Here is the strange thing. Shoigu’s meeting with his top uniformed officers was broadcast live on Russian state television. Neither President Vladimir Putin nor any other civilian official was there. A photograph released by the Defense Ministry showed Shoigu listening intently as Surovikin, leaning over a map with pencil in hand, appears to explain circumstances on the ground to his boss. This photograph is also in the Times piece. Shoigu and Surovikin are both in olive drab.

The decision to withdraw was difficult, Surovikin said, but it would preserve the lives of servicemen and the combat readiness of forces: “In the current conditions, the city of Kherson and nearby settlements cannot be fully supplied and function.” Shoigu thereupon gave his order to withdraw.

What is conveyed in this odd, evidently ritualistic way of announcing a shift in military policy?

Neil Macfarquhar, a Times reporter who had a tour in Moscow some years back, wrote a piece Friday under the headline, “When It Comes to Bearing Bad Tidings, Putin Is Nowhere to Be Found.” Putin, the wily coward in political trouble, was his theme. But during his time in the Moscow bureau, MacFarquhar proved the sort of correspondent who could find darkness in a First Communion ceremony. He once covered a Putin press conference by noting that the Russian president wore an expensive watch. Always a sign of evil, an expensive watch.

Setting this kind of amateur nonsense aside, it seems to me the message Shoigu and Surovikin sent is pretty clear: This was a strictly military decision taken on the basis of conditions on the ground with no regard to—I detest this phrase, but here you go—the optics. 

As to Putin, it seems he has come under fire from the hawkish wings of Moscow’s political firmament. This is nothing the Kremlin will welcome, but we must bear in mind: Vlad the Horrible is in fact a liberal Westernizer in the Russian context, or was until Washington threw a custard pie in his face, and he has been fending off his nationalistic right flank for years.

Conditions on the ground, as we all know, are difficult to discern. But three of them seem to have been on Surovikin’s mind. One, while Ukrainian forces were not making significant advances toward the city, they were shelling it with increasing intensity, as was their wont during the eight-year artillery campaign they waged against civilian areas in the Donbas region—the campaign we are supposed to forget about.

Two, Russians have been increasingly worried of late about signs that the AFU had plans to bomb the Dneprostroi Dam, a huge Soviet-built hydroelectric complex upriver from Kherson. Any such action would flood the city and claim many thousands of civilian lives.

Finally, Surovikin, a no-nonsense military man with a reputation for considered but confident decisions, was concerned about the potential isolation of Russian troops on the Dnieper’s west bank. This was his point as he spoke on Russian television about supply lines. Some media reports suggest Surovikin judged extending Russian troops across the Dnieper a mistake from the first.

In hindsight—so often offering insights one should not have missed—there were signs of Russia’s intent from the moment Surovikin got his command. He immediately warned that “difficult decisions” may be in the offing, though without reference to Kherson, which many observers, your columnist included, took to be nonnegotiable as a forward Russian base. Now it is clear what he meant.

Other things started happening soon after Surovikin took over in Ukraine. A large proportion of Kherson’s civilian population—apparently not the entire city—was evacuated. Then Russian soldiers began removing statues and other Russian-related cultural artifacts, including Potemkin’s tomb, out of the city. This was looting and grave-robbing in Western media accounts. When we consider what Ukrainians and other East Europeans do these days to monuments honoring the Soviet Union’s sacrifices in World War II, it is simply prudence and respect for history.

All signs of what was to come.  Now to signs of what is to come.

One, there is Surovikin’s concern about protecting the combat readiness of the troops now regrouped on the Dnieper’s east bank. Two, there is the vast call-up of Russian reserves announced last summer: I read some 80,000 of the 300,000 reservists to be mustered out are already in place in Ukraine. Three, there is Moscow’s claim—respect it or not, it is a “fact on the ground”—that Kherson region is Russian territory now and Kherson is the provincial capital.

I add one and one and one and get this: It is very likely Surovikin, who is putting his own plans and people in place like some new-broom corporate CEO, has taken one step back prior to taking two forward. I don’t think anyone too far from the Russian high command can say when, but the signs just enumerated indicate that a major new offensive is in the offing at some point in the new year.

As previously predicted in this space, we hear more and more talk of diplomatic negotiations these days, sometimes coming from interesting quarters. On Friday The Times reported that Mark Milley, Joint Chiefs chairman, has joined the chorus. “What the future holds is not known with any degree of certainty, but we think there are some possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions.” The White House immediately distanced itself from Milley’s remarks, sounding the Ukraine- for-Ukrainians bell once again.

This looks like choreography to me: You put out the idea of talks, General, and we’ll deny any such idea. Then we’ll have the thought on the table but Kyiv can’t hound us about it.

The above is pure speculation, but this is often, too often, what we’re left to do in this war—and with a foreign policy that is well more than half submerged. We have not been told in straight terms what Washington’s policy toward Ukraine has been since Washington cultivated the 2014 coup that set this mess in motion. And we are not being told now.

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Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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