The public following the war in Ukraine is currently wondering what Russia’s plan is for the city of Kherson and the bridgehead on the West Bank of the Dnieper.
Deputy director of the occupation administration established by Russia in the Kherson region Kirill Stremousov said yesterday, Thursday, that Russian troops were leaving Kherson. He urged the civilians who remained in the city to either leave the city or stay in shelter “so that they are safe”.
Russia claims to have annexed the Kherson region after a show referendum held in the region. Also the president of Russia Vladimir Putin today, Friday, took a stand on the situation of civilians in Kherson.
– Now really, everyone who lives in the Kherson region should leave the most dangerous battle zone, because the civilian population should not suffer, Putin warned.
The Kherson region has certain aspects that make it central to the continuation of the war between Ukraine and Russia.
How to proceed to Odessa?
Russia gained control of the city of Kherson in the first days of the war at the end of February. The motorized units that rolled down from the Crimean direction broke the resistance of the Ukrainians and got over the bridges of the Dnieper River. The advance continued for about 40 kilometers towards the west, but stopped before the town of Mykolajiv.
Before the war, the big city of Kherson had about 300,000 inhabitants, and almost half of them were Russian-speaking. A considerable part of the people of Kherson also supported Russia’s actions before the war.
How moods have changed during the occupation has a significant impact on Russia’s chances of holding the city. During the occupation, Kherson received a lot of news about civil resistance and even assassinations against Russians.
The conquest of Kherson was important for the Russian army, because Kherson is the only capital of the administrative region of Ukraine, i.e. oblast, that Russia has captured in this war. Herson also has a large port and a shipbuilding industry.
Russia’s war goal has apparently been to advance along the shores of the Black Sea all the way to Odessa and the Moldovan border. In this way, it would isolate Ukraine from the sea and gain a land connection to Transnistria, which it practically controls. If Russia now loses the bridges over the Dnieper in Kherson and Nova Kahovka, it will be almost impossible for it to achieve its other goals on the shores of the Black Sea.
What to do with civilians transferred from Kherson?
For a couple of weeks now, Russia has been urging civilians to leave Kherson. According to estimates, around 70,000 people have left the city.
So far, there is little information about how willing people were to leave their homes. Video footage from the city did not show any rebellion.
At the beginning of the evacuation, people were told to stay away for a week or two. People came on the ferries crossing the Dnieper with rather small luggage. There was no access across the front line to the Ukrainian side.
Recently, neither the Kremlin nor other Russian officials have said how long people should stay in the evacuation center. It can be concluded from the statements that Herson will be completely abandoned. If the evacuees are not allowed back into the city, the Russian authorities will have to decide where tens of thousands of people will be accommodated when winter comes.
It is known that the opposite part of the people of Kherson has been moved a few kilometers away, i.e. outside the artillery range of the Dnieper. There have also been unconfirmed reports of people being transferred to Crimea and further afield in Russia.
The Dnieper problem
The Dnieper River is a huge natural obstacle to any military action. The river is hundreds of meters wide even at its narrowest point.
In its narrowest part south of the Kahovka dam, the banks of the Dnieper are low and swampy. Above the dam, the river widens into an artificial lake over a kilometer wide.
In addition to the dam, there are only two bridges on the Dnieper south of the Kahovka dam and artificial lake. Ukraine has destroyed both. Russia has built light pontoon bridges over the river, but they can hardly withstand tens of tons of tanks. Heavy equipment must therefore be transported across the river on ferries and barges.
If Ukraine is able to beat the Russian forces on the east bank of the Dnieper, crossing the river and continuing the offensive will be an extremely difficult task. Ukraine hardly has the ability to transport its troops by air, because Russia can place a strong air defense near the river. Crossing the river by water is also easy to prevent.
The canal from the Dnieper is the lifeline of Crimea
The apple of Vladimir Putin’s eye is the Crimean peninsula, which was seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Crimea’s water supply depends on the North Crimea Canal, which originates from the Kahovka Reservoir. The starting point of the canal is right next to the Kahovka dam.
Russia has been said to have mined the Kahovka dam and thus threatens to create a flood in the lower reaches of the Dnieper and Kherson. Exploding the dam is unlikely, as a drop in the water level in the artificial lake would probably seriously harm Crimea’s water supply.
The over 400 kilometer long canal brings drinking and irrigation water to the entire Crimean peninsula. Through pipelines, water is transferred all the way to the city of Kerch in the easternmost corner of the peninsula.
When Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine cut off the water flow to the peninsula, which caused great problems for the Russian administration.
What happens at the bridgehead station?
The front line at Herson’s main bridge station has not moved significantly for a few weeks. At the turn of September-October, the Ukrainians forced the Russians to retreat from the northern part of the bridgehead with a quick attack, but after that the front mostly stabilized.
Despite talk of withdrawal, there is no evidence of Russian troops’ intentions to leave. On the contrary, according to information from the Ukrainian army, about a thousand reservists have been brought in to reinforce Sillanpää.
According to information from Ukraine, the bridgehead is in total 40,000 Russian soldiers (you switch to another service), which is a very powerful force group. Sillanpää has strong armor, but some of the artillery has apparently been moved to the east bank of the Dnieper.
Withdrawing the Russian troops from the bridgehead would be a very large logistical operation.
The general assessment is that even if Russia gave up the rest of the bridgehead, there would be a fight for Herson. This would tie up a large number of Ukrainian troops in an all-consuming urban war.
However, according to Ukraine, the Russians have stolen a huge amount of goods from Kherson.
– Absolutely all the property belonging to the city authorities, which provided vital services, has been looted, said the head of the Ukrainian local government Halyna Luhova For the Washington Post (you will switch to another service).
According to Luhova, Russians in civilian clothes have taken everything they could get out of Kherson’s administrative buildings: office supplies, furniture and even parts of water pipes.
The most peculiar information is that the Russian civil administration of Kherson has left the city and moved 50 kilometers away to the small town of Skadovsk on the Black Sea coast. It is reported by many Ukrainian media, such as, for example Kyiv Independent newspaper (you will switch to another service).
American magazine Financial Times (you will switch to another service) says that the Russian rulers of Skadovsk have committed serious human rights crimes.
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More on the subject:
The Russians are said to be withdrawing from Kherson – can you believe the claim?
Updated monitoring of Ukrainian war news