EXPLAINER: What would a withdrawal from Kherson mean for Russia?

Ukrainian forces driving an offensive in the south have focused on Kherson. a provincial capital that has been under Russian control since the early days of the invasion.

The city’s eventual fall would inflict further humiliation on Moscow after a string of battlefield defeats and other setbacks, further cornering Russian President Vladimir Putin and setting the stage for a possible escalation of the nearly eight-month-old war.

A look at the military and political importance of Kherson:

WHY IS THE CITY SUCH A PRIZE?

Kherson, which had a population of 280,000 before the war, is the only regional capital captured by Russian forces. The city and surrounding areas fell into Moscow’s hands in the early days of the conflict, as Russian troops quickly pushed their attack north from Crimea – the region illegally annexed by the Kremlin in 2014.

Its loss was a heavy blow to Ukraine because of its location on the Dnieper near the Black Sea estuary and its role as a major industrial center. Ukrainian resistance fighters have since challenged Russian troops for control of the city with acts of sabotage and assassinations of Moscow-appointed officials.

Kherson also sits at a point where Ukraine can cut off fresh water from the Dnieper to Crimea. Kyiv blocked these vital supplies after annexing the Crimean Peninsula, and Putin cited the need to restore them as one reason for his decision to invade.

Throughout the summer, Ukrainian troops launched relentless attacks to retake parts of the province, also known as Kherson, one of four regions Russia illegally annexed after mock referendums last month. Ukraine has used US-supplied HIMARS missile launchers to repeatedly hit a key bridge on the Dnieper in Kherson and a major dam upstream that also serves as a crossing point. The strikes have forced Russia to rely on pontoons and ferries, which are also under attack from Ukraine.

This cuts supply links to Kherson and the group of Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnieper, leaving them vulnerable to encirclement. Bottlenecks were exacerbated after on October 8 a truck bomb blew up part of the strategic Kerch Bridge, which connects mainland Russia with Crimea, which has served as a key supply hub for Russian forces in the south.

WHAT WAS RUSSIA’S RESPONSE?

Putin blamed Ukraine’s military intelligence for the attack on the Kerch Bridge and responded by ordering a bombing of energy infrastructure across Ukraine.

He also declared martial law in Kherson and the three other annexed regions to tighten Moscow’s grip.

But while Ukrainian forces doggedly pushed their offensive southwest along the Dnieper, Russian troops were finding their advance increasingly difficult to stop.

General Sergei Surovikin, the newly appointed Russian commander in Ukraine, seemed to create the conditions for a possible withdrawal from Kherson, acknowledging that the situation in the region was “quite difficult” for Moscow and noting that the combat situation there was still evolving.

Russian authorities, who initially dismissed talk of evacuating the city, sharply changed course this week, warning that Kherson could come under heavy Ukrainian shelling and encouraging residents to leave the city — but only to Russian-held areas . Officials said 15,000 of the expected 60,000 had been relocated by Thursday. Officials from the Moscow-installed regional administration also withdrew along with other officials.

Moscow has warned that Ukraine could attempt to attack the dam at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station some 50 kilometers upstream, flooding vast areas including the city of Kherson. Ukraine denies this and in return accuses Russia of wanting to blow it up to cause catastrophic floods before its withdrawal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed the dam had already been mined by Russia and urged world leaders to make it clear to the Kremlin that blowing it up “would mean exactly the same thing as using weapons of mass destruction”.

WHAT WOULD LOSS OF KHERSON MEAN FOR RUSSIA?

A withdrawal from Kherson and other areas on the west bank of the Dnieper would shatter Russian hopes of pushing an offensive west to Mykolaiv and Odessa to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. Such a move would deal a devastating blow to its economy. It would also allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria, which is home to a large Russian military base.

“The loss of Kherson will turn all those southern dreams of the Kremlin to dust,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov. “Kherson is a key to the entire southern region, which would allow Ukraine to attack key supply routes for Russian forces. The Russians will try to keep it under control by any means necessary.”

For Ukraine, the capture of Kherson would set the stage for recapturing the Russian-held part of the Zaporizhia region and other areas to the south, and eventually pushing it back into Crimea.

“Ukraine just has to wait for Kherson to fall into its hands like a ripe apple, because the supply situation for the Russian troop group is getting worse every day,” Zhdanov said.

Ukraine hopes to quickly double the number of US-supplied HIMARS missile launchers, which could hit targets 80 kilometers away with deadly precision, he said.

Regaining control of Kherson would also mean that Kyiv could once again cut off Crimea’s water supply.

“After the deoccupation of Kherson, the Russians will again have problems with fresh water in Crimea,” Zhdanov added.

He said Putin could up the ante if faced with the loss of Kherson.

“Russians would be willing to wipe Kherson off the face of the earth instead of giving it to Ukraine,” Zhdanov said.

Destroying the dam to cause massive flooding in the mostly flat area would be one way for Moscow to do this.

“The Russians want to show that a Ukrainian counter-offensive will meet a harsh reaction from the Kremlin, which declared the region part of Russia, and it’s frightening even to think what that reaction might look like,” Zhdanov added .

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the independent think tank Penta Center in Kyiv, noted that capturing the entire Kherson region and other southern territories would be a price for Russia, and losing it would have painful consequences for Putin at home and abroad.

“If the Russians leave Kherson, the Kremlin will face another wave of heavy criticism of the military command and the authorities in general from ultra-patriotic circles,” Fesenko said, adding that the city’s fall further demoralizes the armed forces and may resist mobilization efforts stir up

He also said China and India. Those closely watching Russia’s actions in Ukraine will see the fall of Cherson as a sign of Kremlin weakness.

“Putin will face reputational losses not only in the country but also in the eyes of China, and that could be particularly dangerous for the Kremlin,” Fesenko said.

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Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia contributed to this.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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