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The Kherson Catch 22: Why Losing Kherson Costs so Much More Than Just One City

Henry Choisser

Two months after the onset of the Ukrainian counter offensive at the beginning of September the stance of the conflict has changed dramatically. Ukrainian forces have liberated more than 10,000 square kilometers, the Russian Duma ratified the supposed “annexation” of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions despite lacking full control of any of the regions and a tenuous grasp on the only regional capital Russian forces acquired in the entirety of their campaign. Putin decreed martial law and the mobilization of 300,000 men, an order whose execution has been plagued with violations of the established protections for students, and stories involving agents of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) raiding cafes and business districts to grab men at random. A defected Russian diplomat has provided an unprecedented glimpse at the inner thoughts of the Russian Foreign Ministry at a personnel level and exposed the extent to which post-2014 sanctions crippled the logistical infrastructure of the Russian military. 

To make up for these shortcomings, the organs of Russian state propaganda are setting information conditions for an unprecedented false-flag attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant up river in Kherson. While the Russian sources claimed that they had intelligence the Ukrainians were going to sabotage the dam (which is currently under Russian control), the Ukrainians have negligible incentives to destroy such a piece of critical infrastructure that supplies water and electricity to millions of people in southern Ukraine and provides the water crucial to cooling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (also under Russian occupation). Moreover, the ensuing flood would catastrophically threaten 80 towns and cities downstream (including Kherson where there is mixed evidence of a coming withdrawal). Meanwhile, Moscow has every reason to blow the dam - from escalating the asymmetric warfare against the civilian population of Ukraine, crippling key energy infrastructure, reinforcing domestic propaganda that Ukraine is a "terrorist state", and covering any future retreat from Kherson by swamping towns and making the Dnipro river and surrounding terrain temporarily unpassable. 

On the home front, Putin has implemented a "partial mobilization" and martial law (to varying degrees, with the highest levels being in the four recently claimed regions of Ukraine), which are likely meant as a twofold measure to improve the faltering state of Russia's front lines and throttle the levers of repression to stifle growing dissent. At the current moment, Putin is caught between a rock and a hard place - he cannot appease any of the main blocs in Russian politics. The militantly nationalist Siloviki group within the government that makes up his primary support will not be satisfied with anything but the promised victory. The oligarchs are losing vast sums of money as long as the conflict ensues. The masses are receiving news of defeats they were not pre-conditioned to hear and mounting losses for unobservable gains and stories of students and other citizens protected from mobilization being drafted undermines the trust between the public and the Kremlin. Critics argue that the decree is mostly legal theater designed to legitimize activities the Russian military needs to or is already undertaking while simultaneously creating a legal structure for mobilization and domestic restrictions down the line. 

However, untrained conscripts thrown into the meatgrinder will only staunch the bleeding for a short time, but will do nothing to solve the major shortcomings shown by the Russian military in Ukraine, including disunity within the Russian military command structure, worsening equipment and component shortages, poor morale, and the inability of inconvenient but honest assessments to reach upper leadership. This has been on display throughout Ukraine's September counter offensives on multiple axes, during which Russian forces repeatedly squandered what little available resources they had on inconsequential assaults in the area around Donetsk rather than bolstering their Northern defenses - which resulted in a full rout on the northern axis after the loss of Izium. These orders were crafted in a reality far different from our own - one constrained by an administrative culture of sycophantic survivalism, fatalistic imperialism, and a bureaucracy that has for the most part drunk its own Kool-aid. A reality that has no place for pesky problems such as low morale, supply chain issues, degraded equipment, manpower problems, and training deficiencies

The Institute for the Study of War assessed that Russian moves closer to full-scale martial law and national mobilization are unsurprising but disordered. A competent modern military should implement economic mobilization, secure lines of transportation, and coordinate territorial defense before or as initial mobilization for war begins, not as follow-on reserve mobilization nears its completion. Some of this may be explained by an observation made by the former Kremlin speechwriter turned political consultant, Abbas Gallyamov, who said the decision to declare martial law in occupied Ukraine and impose other restrictions inside Russia appeared more focused on suppressing internal dissent than improving its flailing war effort. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have fled the country in the weeks since the Sept. 21st mobilization order. 

In the light of these obstacles, Russia is trying to achieve asymmetrical gains through the use of Shahed 136 drones and other long range weapons such as Kalibr cruise missiles to strike residential areas and critical energy infrastructure. While the targeting of civilians is unlikely to yield the kind of war weariness the Kremlin is hoping for, the strikes on energy infrastructure have been incredibly expensive, but somewhat effective. President Zelenskyy claimed that recent Russian strikes have damaged 30% of Ukrainian power plants, causing blackouts for over a million people. Each cruise missile cost on the order of $1-15 million depending on the type used and the Ukrainians have had a recent interception rate in excess of 50%, which (along with dwindling stockpiles of precision munitions) likely explains the adoption of Shahed-136 drones for their significantly cheaper price tag of $20-30,000 despite the Russians reported inability to operate them effectively. Additionally, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force Command claimed that their forces have downed more than 273 Shahed-136 drones since Russia began using them in September.  

These overall changes are the context in which the Kherson dilemma faces the Kremlin. The creation of the so-called “Wagner Line” (a defensive barrier being erected by elements of the pseudo-mercenary Wagner Group) far back from the current front lines, along with the transportation of men, ammo, and civilian hostages across the Dnipro river indicate that the Russian field command is expecting to cede significant portions of land in the coming months. Notably, the Russian state news agencies, and numerous Russian military bloggers (Kremlin backed online pro-war pundits) are setting conditions in the informational space for a complete withdrawal of western Kherson. Russian military bloggers have posted that “[our] forces ‘will receive bad news from Kherson Oblast’ in the coming week and that “November will be very, very hard". Moreover in an interview on Russian state-controlled television a war correspondent claimed that Ukrainian forces outnumber Russians by four to one in kherson and that "there will be no good news in the next two months, that’s for sure … severe territorial losses are likely in these two months, but defeat in one battle does not mean losing the war.” 

For Russian authorities the catch 22 of Kherson boils down to the fact that Russian forces on the western bank cannot hold the city without risking encirclement and annihilation, yet giving up the largest city that Moscow proclaimed as part of annexed territory of the Russian Federation just weeks ago (which is thus theoretically protected under its nuclear umbrella) would set a precedent that dramatically undermines the legitimacy of any future nuclear saber rattling, and increases the geopolitical costs of using a nuclear strike of any kind to stifle the prolonged multifront advances of the Ukrainian forces. Moreover, it delegitimizes the fundamental grounds of the already illegal Russian annexation if it cannot even hold its supposed “borders”. 

The loss of Kherson would be the single largest strategic defeat of the war, and the impact on the already tumultuous Russian information space would be near untenable for the narrative of limited setbacks adopted by the Kremlin. However, an uncompromising defense of the city could easily result in the same kind of Russian rout that occurred around Kharkov in mid September - an outcome that would be even more disastrous for the overall war effort. No matter what happens in the battle for Kherson, the Russians are bound to be dealt a poor hand.

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