Reasons for Russia’s Withdrawal from Kherson Region

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On November 9, 2022, Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russian soldiers in Ukraine, suggested to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that they should withdraw from Russian-controlled Kherson to the eastern bank of the Dnieper River. Shoigu took the suggestion and ordered the withdrawal of Russian soldiers the same day.

Given the timing and the allegations, the decision to withdraw Russian soldiers from a part of Kherson, one of four regions annexed by Russia during the invasion by holding a referendum, is a new event that may be considered a prominent development and therefore a turning point in terms of the Russia-Ukraine War. Although this statement may appear overly ambitious in the current context, it could be interpreted as an obligation for the parties given the state of the conflict.

Indeed, Russian authorities viewed this as a “tough decision” from their standpoint. There is no doubt that such a development is an extremely serious decision in terms of the Moscow administration’s Ukraine policy. As Russian officials have explained, this was a difficult decision to make. The main reason for this difficulty is that the Kherson region is one of four that Russia annexed in violation of international law by holding a referendum.  Therefore, Kherson is considered “Russian soil” according to the laws of Russia. For this reason, the withdrawal will inevitably create discomfort in the Russian public. At this time, it is possible to claim that Russia’s retreat, which has left a part of the Kherson region in the hands of the Ukrainian Army, is for a range of reasons.

The first of these is the situation caused by the war. Because Russia’s human and economic costs make the Ukraine War unsustainable. The rise in human and economic costs is exacerbating Russia’s socioeconomic discontent. Thus, the notions that the war with Ukraine was “attrition warfare” and that Russia was not on the winning side began to emerge, both among Russian leadership and among a section of Russian society.

As could be predicted, this is creating rifts within society as well as among Russia’s leadership. In this context, decision-makers have to evaluate different options. In reality, it can be claimed that one of the possibilities on the table is to withdraw from a portion of the Kherson region and leave it to the Ukrainian Army and play defense. In other words, Russia may have decided to shift from an offensive to a defensive approach. It is also claimed that the decision was a “strategic retreat.” However, given the state of the conflict, it is doubtful how much a strategic retreat will help Moscow in terms of a new skirmish.

Secondly, Russia may prefer to use the Kherson region as a bargaining chip against Donbas, which it still controls. The Kremlin administration revised its aims and concentrated its attention on the Donbas immediately after Russia’s armed action against Ukraine that began in February 2022. In other words, the primary goal of Moscow is to control the Donbas region. Russia’s major reason for intervening in the Kherson region was based on the idea of gaining control over Donbas. As a result, Russia may use the withdrawal as a facilitating factor to persuade both domestic and international public opinion that the process and negotiations are restricted to Donbas. As a result, Russia may have felt the need to update and repair its image in the eyes of the foreign public, particularly the Russian people. This can turn into an argument that will further strengthen Russia’s hand at the diplomacy table. In other words, the events may have triggered a process that is appealing to Russian and Ukrainian citizens, based on the “win-win” idea and reciprocal compromises.

The fact that Russia made such a “tough” decision despite holding a referendum in the Kherson region and stating that it had annexed these regions raises an important question. This question is: Is Russia preparing for making a bigger bargain with the US?

In truth, Russia has long desired to sit at the negotiation table with the US. The Russian authorities have repeatedly stated this. As a result, the reasons that forces Russia to negotiate with the US were effective in Russia’s withdrawal from some of the regions it occupied by abandoning its ambition to capture the entirety of Ukraine.

In this context, it is possible to talk about many reasons. These, as mentioned at the beginning, may be related to the heavy cost of the war. But it is more than just that. Because Ukraine is becoming stronger every day due to the war. The psychological superiority conferred to Ukrainian soldiers by the conflict, as well as the sense of national unity it created, aided Kyiv. Furthermore, the equipping of Ukraine by the US and other Western countries elevates the country to the status of a major military force. As a result, stopping the Ukrainian Army armed with modern weaponry and expertise is difficult for the Russian forces.

The extension of the war wears out Russia while also providing Ukraine with some military benefits. As a result, the war undermines Russia’s global strategy. For example, the Russia-Ukraine War has strengthened Trans-Atlantic relations. In reality, despite Russia’s desire to position Europe as an independent pole from the US, ties between the US and the European Union are strengthening. Even a state like Germany, which has strategic relations with Russia in the Western Alliance, has now reduced its relations with Moscow to a minimum. Furthermore, Berlin’s relations with Kyiv are improving.

Furthermore, Russia is isolated not just in the West, but also in the non-Western world, and suffers from the “abandonment” syndrome. This is particularly evident in the relations on the Moscow-Beijing line. Russia did not get the support it expected from China regarding the war in Ukraine. In addition, China is acting against Moscow’s interests in Central Asia and Russia’s border regions and is initiating operations to enhance its influence.

As can be seen, the Russia-Ukraine War is paving the way for China, which may have made Moscow uneasy. Looking at the new process from the point of view of the US, the Washington administration probably thinks that Russia has reached the desired consistency and does not want it to weaken further. This is consistent with the US-China competition, which has been disclosed from the beginning of the war of keeping Russia away from China and pulling China closer to itself. The US, which has inflicted a serious blow to the system that wants a multipolar world against itself, appears to want to impose a burden on China along all lines by, at the very least, neutralizing Moscow by securing peace between Russia and Ukraine. In this context, it seems to have achieved the desired result with the Ukraine Crisis to a large extent.

China, on the other hand, is progressively turning away from its notions about the “multipolar international order,” which it supports with Russia, and is signaling its willingness to reconcile with the US. The claims that Beijing is seeking a “controlled bipolar” system with Washington probably did not escape the attention of Russia. This caused Moscow to reconsider its foreign policy and especially its relations with the great powers.

To summarize, the war in Ukraine has not only damaged the Russian-Chinese partnership but also showed that the United States can inflict hard blows on Russia with “proxy wars.” Of course, this can be interpreted as a message from the US to Russia. It might be claimed that Moscow has realized that if it does not voluntarily embrace the Washington administration’s interests, the US would use other tactics to put Russia in difficulty.

Thus, Russia’s partial withdrawal from Kherson means that Moscow is preparing to take some steps for negotiations. Therefore, Russia sees the start of negotiations as one of its most important targets. Undoubtedly, Ukraine’s reaction to this process and the approach it will display is a reality that should not be ignored. At this point, the US secret diplomacy is most likely at work.

Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin EROL
Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin EROL
Born in 1969, Dörtyol-Hatay, Prof. Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin Erol graduated from Boğaziçi University (BU), Department of Political Science and International Relations in 1993. After completing his master's degree at BU in 1995, Erol was accepted to the PhD program at BU in the same year. After completing his PhD at Ankara University in 2005, Erol became an associate professor in the field of “International Relations” in 2009 and a professor in 2014. Erol worked at the Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) between 2000 and 2006 and and served as the General Coordinator of ASAM for a period. In 2009, he served as also Founding Chairman and Board Member of the Institute for Strategic Thinking (SDE). He is also the Founding President of the Center for International Strategy and Security Studies (USGAM) and the President of the International Relations Institute of the New Türkiye Strategic Research Center (YTSAM). Prof. Erol has also served as the Director of Gazi University Strategic Research Center (GAZISAM). In 2007, Prof. Erol received the “Turkish World Service Award” from the Writers and Artists Foundation of the Turkic World (TÜRKSAV), and has received numerous awards for his academic work and his activities in the media. Some of them can be listed as follows: 2013 “Print Media of the Year Award” by the Association of Contemporary Democrats, 2015 “APM 10th Year Service Award”, “2015 Press-Intellectual of the Year Award” by the Writers' Union of Türkiye (YTB), “2016 Volunteer Ambassadors Media Honor Award” by the Anatolian Village Guards and Martyrs' Families, “2016 Türkiye Honor Award” by the Yoruk Turkmen Federations. Prof. Erol has 15 book studies. The names of some of them are as follows: “The United States of Turks from Dream to Reality”, “Türkiye-EU Relations: Foreign Policy and Internal Structure Problems”, “The New Great Game in Eurasia”, “The Search for Strategy in Turkish Foreign Policy”, “The Search for Security in Turkish Foreign Policy”, “The Republic of Türkiye-Russian Federation Relations”, “The Cold Organization of Hot Peace: The New NATO”, “Theoretical Approaches in Foreign Policy Analysis: The Case of Turkish Foreign Policy”, “Crises and Crisis Management: Actors and Case Studies”, “Kazakhstan” and “Current Issues in International Relations”. Since 2002, Prof. Erol, who has carried out radio programs such as “Eurasia Agenda”, “Strategic Perspective”, “Global Perspective”, “Analysis”, “File”, “News Desk”, “The Other Side of the Agenda” on TRT Türkiye's voice and TRT Radio 1 (Ankara Radio), made the programs “Arayış” on TRT INT television between 2004-2007, “Beyond the Border” on Kanal A television between 2007-2010 and “Foreign Policy Agenda” on BBN TÜRK television in 2020-2021. Prof. Erol, whose foreign policy column “Arayış” was published in Milli Gazete between 2012-2018, is consulted for his expertise in numerous national and international media outlets such as television, radio, newspapers, news websites and magazines. Prof. Erol, who also taught at Gazi University Department of International Relations and Ankara University Latin American Studies Center (LAMER) between 2006-2018, has been continuing his academic career as a faculty member at Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli University Department of International Relations since 2018. Since 2006, Prof. Erol has also taught in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Ufuk University. The main areas of interest and expertise of Prof. Erol and the titles of his courses at the undergraduate, master's and doctoral levels in this area are as follows: “Geopolitics”, “Security”, “Intelligence”, “Crisis Management”, “Current Issues in International Relations”, “Turkish Foreign Policy”, “Russian Foreign Policy”, “US Foreign Policy” and “Central Asia and South Asia”. Prof. Erol, whose articles-evaluations have been published in many journals and newspapers, has been editor of academic journals such as “Eurasia File”, “Strategic Analysis”, “Strategic Thinking”, “Gazi Regional Studies”, “The Journal of SSPS”, “Black Sea Studies”. He is currently in the editorial boards of “Regional Studies,” “International Crisis and Political Research,” “Gazi Academic View”, “Ege University Turkish World Surveys”, “Ankara International Social Sciences”, “Democracy Platform”. Prof. Erol, who has been working as the Founding President of the Ankara Center for Crisis and Political Studies (ANKASAM) since 2016, is married and has three children.