By: Timofei Rozhanskiy
Russia's withdrawal from the southeastern city of Kherson marks another victory for Kyiv as the front lines on the battlefield continue to be redrawn. But as the fighting shifts into a new phase with winter looming, what's next for the nearly nine-month war?
Following their retreat from Kherson, Russian forces are digging in on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, across from Kherson, where they are currently setting up defenses that military analysts have said could impede a Ukrainian advance. The river's width and added damage to the Antonivskiy Bridge by departing Russian troops, which connects the two banks, make pursuing Russian troops a risky maneuver for the Ukrainians.
"This [Russian] troop withdrawal [from Kherson] was prepared in advance. We know it started earlier than it was announced by the Kremlin," Roman Kostenko, a colonel of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Kyiv's main intelligence agency, told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "From a military perspective, they've retreated competently by covering their withdrawal and leaving large areas mined for any advancing Ukrainian forces."
Meanwhile, fighting continues to grind on in the eastern Donbas region, with Ukrainian forces repelling repeated Russian pushes to take towns such as Bakhmut and Pavlivka, with growing losses on each side.
Kostenko, who is also a lawmaker in the Ukrainian parliament, was part of the recent military effort to recapture the city of Snihurivka in Ukraine's Mykolayiv region, approximately 50 kilometers northeast from Kherson city. He says that as Russia withdraws it will continue to move troops further north to reinforce positions in the Zaporizhzhya region toward the city of Melitopol and beyond.
"We see where they're going," he said. "Now the main task is to make sure that as few Russian soldiers and equipment as possible can make it there from the right side of the river."
With the winter weather setting in -- which will bring new logistical difficulties for moving troops and equipment necessary for another offensive -- analysts and diplomats have raised the possibility of the fighting slowing down as both militaries look to regroup.
Some Western leaders -- most notably Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley -- have also raised the possibility of new negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow, with Milley saying the winter presents "a window of opportunity" for the sides to begin talks.
However, Ukrainian officials have been adamant that a stalemate or slowdown would only allow Moscow to cement its gains and escalate fighting on its own terms, pointing to how General Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russia's forces in Ukraine, said the Kherson withdrawal would free up troops to fight elsewhere. As the retreat was prepared, Moscow sent new units of mobilized soldiers to battle in Svatove and other areas in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to make gains there.
"The only way Surovikin could realistically sell the idea of the Kherson retreat to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was by offering the promise of assured success in the east," wrote Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine's former defense minister who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. "Ukraine must therefore brace for a major escalation in the Donbas region in the coming weeks."
Following an earlier military setback and retreat in September by Russian troops in Kharkiv, the Kremlin rolled out a mobilization drive to draft military- age men for the war in Ukraine.
But the new recruits have so far not been able to shift momentum on the battlefield, with growing reports of low morale and poorly equipped and trained soldiers being deployed to the front.
Current Time spoke with dozens of relatives of mobilized recruits who have been sent to the front in Svatove, in Ukraine's Luhansk region, where their units have suffered heavy losses. According to their family members, the recruits say they face difficult conditions and do not have enough weapons and ammunition available. Some have even refused to continue fighting and are currently being held prisoner for disobeying orders during wartime.
"My brother got in touch and said they were in a basement in Zaitseve [in eastern Ukraine]," Ekaterina Belova said about her brother Alexei Arsyutin, who worked as a manager at a KFC outside of Moscow before receiving a draft summons on September 25 and being deployed to Svatove. "[Alexei] said there were 250 other people there when he was held."
Alla Petrovna says she received a call from her son, who also said he was being detained with others for refusing to fight and that the building they were being held in had "no amenities," according to her son. He added that many men were being pressured into signing documents admitting to refusing orders from their commanding officers, which is a criminal offense.
Anastasia Dutova, whose husband was drafted from Russia's Kursk region and sent to the front line in Luhansk, has been trying to lobby the local military prosecutor's office along with other wives of recently mobilized men from the area. Their husbands' unit has come under heavy attacks in eastern Ukraine and the soldiers often complain to their wives about poor strategy and leadership from their senior officers.
She says they wrote a collective appeal and were told by the office that a convoy would be sent to retrieve them but her husband still remains near the front and has told her there are no signs anyone is going to come.
"Many are wounded, and many have already died. Some they just let bleed out," Dutova said. "Others are getting sick from the cold, and someone might have pneumonia."
Analysts will be observing the fighting closely in the coming weeks and watching for Kyiv and Moscow's next moves as the new battle lines take shape.
During November 10 comments at an event at the Economic Club of New York, Milley said Russia and Ukraine had each suffered more than 100,000 casualties -- dead and wounded -- since the Kremlin's February 24 invasion.
Amid the mounting casualties and Russia's retreats, some analysts say they see an increasing readiness from Moscow to engage in talks with Ukraine over the future of the war.
Some officials from U.S. President Joe Biden's administration, such as Milley, have also pushed for a focus on diplomacy during the winter. However, this is reportedly a minority position, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national-security adviser Jake Sullivan saying they will not pressure Kyiv.
"That's up to the Ukrainians. Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine," Biden said at a November 9 press conference when asked about the potential for talks.
Broader concerns also remain over how fruitful talks could be while the Kremlin clings to its position that Kyiv must accept Russia's illegal seizures of territory and whether Moscow would only use a cease-fire as an opportunity to rebuild its forces and launch a new attack on Ukraine. Ukrainian officials have also signaled that they intend to keep fighting and retaking territory following a series of battlefield gains in recent months.
"The war will not stop in the coming winter," Mick Ryan, a recently retired Australian Army major general and commentator on the war in Ukraine, wrote in a recent article for Australia's ABC. "But it will be fought at a different tempo…and it provides political and military leaders an opportunity to plan for what is likely to be a brutal and bloody year ahead." (KB-RFE-RL)
(Timofei Rozhanskiy is a correspondent in Kyiv for Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. Born in Russia, he graduated from St. Petersburg State University and also received film and video production training at Bard College in New York. Before joining Current Time’s Moscow bureau in 2019, Rozhanskiy worked for the independent Russian television channel TV Rain)