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.