In recent weeks, the Russians have been slowly moving out of Kherson in a controlled manner, leaving their prepared positions on the West bank of the Dnipro river to new positions on the East bank.
After Ukraine destroyed the Antonovsky bridge and the Russians found that it would be impossible to repair it only to see it knocked down again, they decided(wisely for once) to make a planned withdrawal to the East bank of the river. Even then, the pontoon bridges and barges they employed came under repeated attack. For Russia, their inability to defend the Antonovsky bridge meant the supply artery from Russia into the city had been cut and they had their backs to a deep and wide river that would trap their forces if they remained.
Kherson is the largest city Russia has been able to capture in Ukraine and the roads and rail line that runs through it make it an important piece of real estate to not only supply Crimea but also the region’s water supply for irrigation and human consumption as it passes right through the city. Ukraine cannot retake Crimea without retaking Kherson and Russia cannot hold Crimea if it loses the city either.
In Kherson, Ukraine’s military intelligence stated that Russia had its best trained and equipped troops, comprised of units of paratroopers, naval infantry, and their own version of special operations forces. The total number of troops in Kherson is in the range of 40,000 with the best troops stationed in the middle of the city. This suggests the disposition of Russian forces was to put its least well-trained and equipped conscripts and Donbas militia in the defensive positions and use the paratroopers, marines, and special forces as quick reaction units to blunt Ukrainian attacks on the lines. It might have been very effective and caused a great many casualties to Ukrainian assault forces if Ukraine had chosen to press their attack into the city.
Monuments to Man’s Stupidity
Recent images have emerged of fortifications being built on the East bank of the Dnipro river by Russia that is said to be formidable, but they only show a single line of defensive trenches and emplacements. A truly “formidable” defensive line would not be a single line but several lines of ever-increasing density and toughness. The Russians understand the idea of a Defense in Depth from fighting the armored formations of the German army in WWII, which never once failed to break Russian defensive lines during an assault. The Russian response was to build lines of defense in layers that could be 6-10 lines of defense. This would exhaust the German units which could not turn in on the flanks of Russian positions without encountering another defensive line on their own flank.
For Russia to have only a single line of defensive positions on the Dnipro at the moment suggests they expect the river itself to keep them safe from a Ukrainian crossing.
For Ukraine’s part, it appears willing to allow Russian forces to withdraw to the East bank of the river without destroying them. There may be very good reasons for this.
First, an assault on Kherson itself by Ukraine would require tens of thousands of infantry fighting street by street and house by house leaving the city in ruins along with thousands of dead civilians. Ukraine wants the city back in one piece if it can have it that way.
Second, the Russian army while leaving is also evacuating tens of thousands of pro-Russian and Russian-speaking citizens which Ukraine would probably deport to Russia anyway when they retook the city. They don’t want a pro-Russian population in Kherson they will tie down large numbers of troops to prevent the Ukrainian population from taking revenge on them. One of the under-reported aspects of this war is the internal civil war that is going on between Ukrainians and the large population of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Russian evacuation of these civilians means Ukraine will not have to deal with tens of thousands of potential saboteurs and subversives in the city itself as it regains administrative control of the city. They would probably see that as a good thing.
Third, winter is coming and Ukraine’s generals probably figure that they would rather spend that winter inside a largely intact Kherson than shivering in trenches on its outskirts for that season. Ukraine has a very cold, Minnesota-type winter that would result in lots of frostbite casualties for its troops dug in outside the city. It would rather see the Russians take those casualties in trenches and fortifications on the East bank of the Dnipro.
Returning to the Russian fortifications on the East bank of the river, General Patton once wrote, “Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity. If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything made by man can be overcome.” Patton was also known for not wanting to hear from his subordinate commanders that they were “holding” the enemy or “digging in” in a defensive posture. He wanted his units to be on the offensive and keep moving no matter what.
Russia digging in means they have lost the initiative and must fight Ukraine on its terms militarily rather than set the terms itself. Its losses in tanks, APCs, trucks, and experienced combat troops have crippled Russia’s ability to conduct coordinated and effective offensive actions with the kind of mobility that exists on the modern battlefield. Instead, they are digging trenches and hoping that Ukraine will be dumb enough to throw waves of infantry at it that they can mow down.
The French spent decades after WWI creating a massive defensive position called the Maginot Line which the Germans simply flew over in the case of the Luftwaffe or went around in order to defeat it. Later in the war when the Allies were on the offensive and found the Maginot Line now manned by German troops it was bypassed again.
The problem with fixed fortifications is that deprive your own army of mobility, and all but assure that an enemy will bypass the defenses by attacking your flanks. In WWII, prior to the invention of precision-guided munitions, these bunkers and trenches offered troops some measure of protection, but times have changed. Ukraine has HIMARs rockets and Excalibur artillery rounds that are accurate within a few feet and have improvised drones to drop mortar rounds and grenades on individual soldiers in foxholes and trenches. Ukraine’s ground tactics have been to keep moving, using fast columns of armor and motorized infantry to cut off and encircle Russian troops in pockets that can then be reduced or compelled to surrender. They also avoid getting bogged down in fighting street-to-street urban combat knowing the losses their own infantry would take in the process and the time that would be lost.
So Ukraine is not giving Russia the fight for every inch of ground that Russia wants that would put them on relatively equal terms. They keep moving and attacking, probing for weak spots, making Russia spread itself thin by having to defend everything at once. Having Kherson back in their hands, they are most likely to pivot South and move on to Crimea, ignoring the Russian defensive line on the East bank of the Dnipro and effectively flank it. Using its precision-guided munitions and drones, Ukraine will pick at the line constantly to keep Russian troops in their trenches and bunkers and out of the fight for Crimea which is the real prize and objective of Ukraine’s offensive.