Russia’s retreat last week from Kherson, a southern port city that it had seized shortly after invading Ukraine, was one of the biggest setbacks yet to President Vladimir Putin’s war effort. A renewed Ukrainian military offensive has clearly put Russian troops on the run.
“If you had asked a reasonable person in September what the best-case scenario for Ukraine was, the situation in Kherson is pretty close,” my colleague Julian Barnes, who covers national security for The Times, said.
But the war may be about to enter a new phase, as The Times explained. The cold, wet fall and coming winter, with its freezing temperatures and snowfall, could pause large offensives. Putin seems to be counting on it to give Russian troops extra time to rebuild and regroup.
Today’s newsletter will look at the Ukrainian military’s recent successes and what might come next.
Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson is both a symbolic and strategic victory. The city was the only provincial capital that Russia had seized this year, and its capture marked one of Russia’s biggest early successes. Kherson is also key to controlling Ukraine’s southern coast. (These maps show Russia’s territorial losses.)
Residents celebrated in Kherson’s central square as Ukrainian troops moved into the city. They hugged soldiers, cheered and wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags that they had hidden from Russian forces. “People walk on the streets and congratulate each other,” one local retiree told The Times. “It’s just a holiday!”
Russian troops’ efforts to assimilate Ukrainians there, like trying to force them to pay bills in rubles and threatening arrest if they spoke Ukrainian, failed to take hold as well, residents said.
The loss prompted even some of Putin’s supporters to express anguish about the war effort. One prominent Kremlin ally, Aleksandr Dugin, broke the taboo against singling out Putin. Another, Boris Rozhin, called Russia’s retreat from Kherson the country’s “most serious military defeat since 1991,” when the Soviet Union fell.
Since early September, Ukraine’s military has succeeded in battles around the country. It previously routed Russia from the Kharkiv region in the northeast. Victory there allowed Ukraine to push farther east into the Donbas, which is now Putin’s most prized target in the war.
And last month, an attack badly damaged the only bridge linking Russia to Crimea, a Russian-held peninsula in the south.
Putin has tried to regain momentum through extreme measures. He instituted a draft to replenish Russian forces. (More than 100,000 have been wounded or killed on each side since the war began, a U.S. general said last week.) Putin illegally annexed parts of Ukraine, including Kherson. His military hit civilian targets across Ukraine with missile strikes. And he has invoked Russia’s nuclear capabilities in not-so-subtle threats.
None of Putin’s efforts succeeded in halting Ukraine’s battlefield advances. Some have backfired: The draft led hundreds of thousands of Russian men to flee the country, and the conscripts’ families have criticized the process and the war.
The next phase
Ukraine’s military has signaled that it will begin a new offensive in the south. President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to fight until Russia abandons all seized territory. Achieving that goal will be difficult; for one, it would require Ukraine to retake Crimea, which Russia has held for more than eight years.
But Ukraine has consistently defied the odds from the start, when Russia was widely expected to swiftly overtake the country’s military. “The days of underestimating Ukrainian might and Russian weakness are over for me,” Julian said.
Still, Ukraine’s gains could slow in the coming months. Wet conditions will soon make much of the terrain muddy and make it difficult for either side to move troops and military equipment quickly. Heavy snow later in the fall and winter could slow both sides even further.
“A static front line could be good for Putin because he is just looking for a way to stabilize a situation,” my colleague Anton Troianovski, The Times’s Moscow bureau chief, said.
Putin is also hoping that the cold will weaken support for Ukraine’s fight, as citizens confront a winter without heating, and their European allies face rising energy prices after refusing Russian oil and gas.
“People are really worried about the winter,” said my colleague Jeffrey Gettleman, who’s covering the war from Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine. “It’s near freezing and most places don’t have heat. It’s 55 degrees inside my hotel room.”
Combine all of those factors, and Russia could go into the spring in a better position.
But such an outcome relies on several pieces that have yet to materialize. Russia’s military has shown that it is unprepared or unwilling to fight a prolonged war. Putin’s cruelty has consistently hardened, not weakened, Ukrainian resolve to strike back. The West has continued to support Ukraine as energy prices have risen.
“Everyone in Ukraine is hanging on for total victory,” Jeffrey said. “They really believe their forces are going to push Russian troops out of the country.”
Ukraine’s recent wins work against Putin’s plans in another way: If Ukraine keeps showing that it can win, the country’s people and allies have good reason to stick to the war effort, and Russia and its troops have good reason to lose hope.
Zelensky visited Kherson, celebrating Ukraine’s success and surveying the damage to the city. Follow our updates.
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