Kherson Examined, Or: What Would General Mundabor Do?
Yesterday, something strange (and sad) happened: the Russians announced they would retire from Kherson city and all the territories west of the River (the “right bank”, as the river flows towards the south). Not what I wanted to read, for sure.
This is unpleasant for every supporter of Russia. However, instead of behaving like children (a fashionable behaviour in pro-Russian Telegram channels), we should look at the situation and see what prompted this decision. Military operations, special or not, are not fought on twitter, and they require a longer time horizon than the next two hours.
It was clear since the famous interview of General Surovikin (the new Military Supremo) that he *did not like one bit the situation he had inherited in Kherson*. This can be described, in two words, as a dangerous bridgehead with an immense river (the Dnepr) at the back, a risk of flooding of your soldiers if the nearby dam is broken, and a great difficulty in resupplying them with food and ammo. You need to imagine the Kherson region as being constrained by a big bottleneck, causing a great danger of having tens of thousands of soldiers either flooded or left without ammo. If the soldiers are cut off from resupply and retreat, you have a huge cauldron with 20k or more Russians soldiers stuck in. Hence, Surovikin statement, last month, that “difficult decisions might have to be made”.
Around one month has gone since that interview. I think that Surovikin has seen that the bottleneck cannot be eliminated (the river is still huge, and the Ukrainian are still good at shelling the pontoon bridges). Now that the civilian population has been (wisely) evacuated and he is free to make his own decision, the guy has simply decided that he would do what is better for his soldier and his army, not the PR machine and the Twitter warriors.
Could he have held Kherson? For sure. This is so obvious that you can see, since yesterday, that the Ukrainians still hesitate to advance, so scared they are that this is a trap. He could have held Kherson and he could have, when the attack comes, inflict big losses on the Ukrainian forces. Still, this would have come at at a price to pay in losses for his own soldiers, and at the risk of the Ukrainian managing to break the dam, or to starve his troops of ammo and other logistics. From the fact that Surovikin decided to choose the safety of his soldiers, you understand that this one is the exact opposite of Zelensky, sending his soldiers to die for the sake of two days’ headlines or more almsgiving from the West.
Basically, you can see it in this way: Surovikin is put in charge of the entire front. He looks at it and says to himself: “if I had had my way from day one, is this the front line I would have wanted? With this highly symbolic, but difficult to keep bridgehead, that could, one day, cause a huge loss for which I, not my predecessors who put me in this situation in the first place, would be blamed?”
We know for sure, since yesterday, what answer Surovikin gave to this question. I think he decided to do this one month ago, he simply needed the time to evacuate the civilian population and prepare the Russians for the “difficult decision” he had announced. He is also showing that this one is his own decision, not a retreat forced by an actual, ongoing Ukrainian attack.
Is this pleasant? No. Kherson undoubtedly has a very high PR value, and this one is undoubtedly a boost for the Ukrainian’s morale, which they will milk to the last drop. It will also force the West to keep bleeding weapons to the Ukraine. It will also mean giving away a convenient bridge head the other side of the Dnepr. But Surovikin is as prudent as Putin. He does not care for the moaning of Twitter generals. He will have the front line he wants whilst he keeps dismantling the Ukrainian infrastructure piece by piece, starving them of the energy they need to keep the war going.
This is not what we see in the movies. This is not the war made of heroic advances many would have. This is the business of war as conducted by a guy who wants to keep his own army intact as he slowly dismounts the one of his enemy. No big proclaims. No great offensives. He seems to be a followers of the first rule of Italian boxing: primo, non prenderle, or “first thing: avoid being hit”.
Many disagree with this. They know (and they are right) that the Russian potential to inflict pain to the Ukraine is so big, that they see no need to keep being so prudent, and gentle, and casualties shy. They know (and they are right) that if Russia wanted to go all in against the Ukraine, soon you would have a heap of smouldering ruins where the enemy used to be. Clearly, this is not wanted by either Putin of Surovikin, and it’s not really smart to destroy everything in front of you when you want to keep the territory as your own after the conflict. I have no doubt the Russians would scorch the earth in Finland. They just won’t do it – unless absolutely forced – in the Ukraine.
Surovikin has shown great intelligence and self-assuredness. He has also shown that he will conduct this operation according to sound military principles, not social media frenzies. He has, in fact, shown great ability in first telling you that he *might* do the unpleasant stuff, and then doing it when the conditions are right. Sad as I am that this decision has been made, I cannot but admire this guy’s ice-cold decision making.
Would General Mundabor have made the same decision? Who knows what he would have done, having the same information. Also, who knows whether General Mundabor, tired of this conflict being protracted by the constant deliveries of weapons from the West, would not have decided to stay in Kherson, and bomb to smithereens some Polish military base used as a distribution centre, or some German military base used as training centre, or to completely annihilate Portsmouth’s naval base in order to persuade the Brits to leave the adults alone and go play with the dolls.
You see: in that case, general Mundabor would have, very likely, forced a rapid end of the conflict without any need to leave Kherson. But he might also have – unlikely, but possible – caused a big escalation in the military confrontation; one that would see Russia emerge as the victor very fast – barring a nuclear escalation – but would have also caused great losses for the Russian army and devastations everywhere. Who knows.
The Russians do not mind tactical retreats. They let Napoleon arrive all the way to Moscow (Borodino is more than 100km away). Then they started to work on Napoleon’s grave there. Imagine if twitter, or Telegram, had existed at the time!
All in all, I would say that Surovikin is acting prudently and wisely.
I trust both him and Putin to do what is smart in the long term.