Ukraine update: Russia isn’t pulling out of Kherson—at least not yet

Ukraine update: Russia isn’t pulling out of Kherson—at least not yet

Sunday’s report from Ukraine’s southern command was … light, announcing just seven Russian troops killed in a single counter-battery radar system. Given that the usual number is in the dozens to low hundreds, it signaled that absolutely nothing happened on that front. This is likely the reason: 

Rain and cloud cover mean everything grinds to a halt. Satellites can’t get a good look at what’s happening on the ground, and drones can’t do their work. At this point, it’s clear that Ukraine does very little without eyes in the sky. Look at this assault by the Georgian Foreign Legion on a Russian trench in Kherson—all of it tracked by drone. (Warning, it’s graphic at the end.)

🇬🇪🤝🇺🇦Adrenaline footage of the assault on enemy positions by the Georgian legion pic.twitter.com/plQNF06UEp

— ТРУХА⚡️English (@TpyxaNews) October 23, 2022

Drones give assaulting forces advanced reconnaissance, they correct mortar and artillery fire, they give advance warning of any enemy counterattacks. That intelligence is just too valuable to forgo on a cloudy, rainy, and windy day. 

Kherson will see more rain Tuesday and Wednesday, at the least (it might be dry Thursday and Friday in the latest forecast). Either way, expect slower movements this week. 

Meanwhile, hopes that Russia was walking away from Kherson have been dashed by Ukraine’s intelligence service. 

Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, says Russia is not preparing to abandon Kherson and is instead reinforcing the city. It’s evacuating non-essential personnel so it would be able to withdraw quickly if Ukraine seizes the Kakhovka dam, cutting off the Russian force.

— Yaroslav Trofimov (@yarotrof) October 24, 2022

Russia has been evacuating the families of officers and Russian administrative officials, while collaborators, teachers imported from Russia (since the locals refused to teach the Russian propagandist curriculum), and Ukrainians who took Russian passports are also fleeing. By clearing out their loyalist civilians now, barges and pontoon bridges can be used exclusively for military equipment and personnel if and when the time comes to evacuate. At least, that’s the theory. 

We’ve seen Russian troops heading out of the Kherson pocket on barges, and we know that conscripts are being rushed in—speed bumps if Ukraine gets serious about pushing forward again. What we don’t know is if serious combat forces are also coming in, which would make this a routine troop rotation. That would be new for Russia, and particularly surprising given the difficulty in moving gear in and out. For context, Ukraine tries to rotate its front-line troops every three days (though that wasn’t the case earlier in the war on the Donbas front.)

We do know from multiple sources that Russian artillery has mostly ceased in Kherson, as supplying thirsty batteries becomes increasingly challenging. It would be odd to be using sparse transport capabilities to rotate troops while starving them of the ammunition they need to conduct Russian-style artillery-heavy combat action. So it’s all very peculiar. As always, the fog of war obscures much, if not all, of what’s currently happening in Kherson. 

Meanwhile, we’re seeing some movement on other fronts. 

Report from Bakhmut: it took russki wagnerites couple months and tons of cannon fodder to reach the strategic position they proudly called “the putin’s crossroad”. Then it took Ukrainian army 48 hours to re-capture the same crossroad and push the poor russkies 2km away from it 🤷🏻‍♂️

— Operator Starsky (@StarskyUA) October 24, 2022

We definitely see a more aggressive Ukrainian posture around Bakhmut, the site of Russia’s (really, Wagner mercenaries’) bizarre obsession. As always, it doesn’t matter if Russia captured Bakhmut. It gets them nothing strategically. Look at the map. Bakhmut is utterly irrelevant to anything. 

Sure, it’s a transportation hub, but it’s currently offline. Sivers’k, to the north, can be supplied from Sloviansk. There are no rail lines from the easy that Russia could use to improve its logistics moving forward. And sure, it would be an important waypoint if Russia had the juice to push to Kramatorsk, but it doesn’t. Not even close. 

Similarly, it makes little sense why Ukraine fights so hard for it. Look at the map of the city: 

Arrows point to river that bisects Bakhmut

A river runs through the eastern third of the city, dividing the industrial zone from the residential and commerical parts of town. All of it is flattened and in ruins, so offers little to anyone. There’s absolutely zero chance Wagner could cross that river, swelled by fall rains. Yet like Severodonetsk, Ukraine has a policy of surrendering nothing without a fight, and it sure is embarrassing that Wagner hasn’t just failed to get to the river, but has now been fully pushed out to the M03 highway, which cuts diagonally at the top right-hand corner of the map above.

Here’s what the asphalt plant, the scene of much recent fighting, looks like after Wagner was pushed out: 

#Bakhmut, Asphalt plant. Recently liberated by the AFU pic.twitter.com/GzBcX1U6Mc

— NOËL 🇪🇺 🇺🇦 (@NOELreports) October 24, 2022

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have been pushing back northeast of Bakhmut, though with conflicting reports of success. Either way, seems doubtful Wagner can gather enough prison labor to feed their human-wave attacks at the city. While I was premature in announcing Wagner’s culmination on this front a week ago, it’ll happen soon. It’s inevitable. 

And further good news, after a week of uncertainty, Ukraine announced the liberation of several new cities on the approach to Svatove, up north. 

Ukraine liberates four villages in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts – General Staff Ukrainian “troops pushed the enemy out of the settlements of Karmazynivka, Miasozharivka and Nevske in Luhansk oblast, and Novosadove in Donetsk oblast.”https://t.co/4mceHksr47

— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) October 24, 2022

Remember that Ukraine doesn’t announce liberations until an area is secure, and its forces are further ahead. Indeed, there were reports yesterday that Ukraine was contesting the settlements of Chervonopopivka and Zhytlivka, which are to the east of the towns above. By most indications, Ukraine is now 10 to 15 kilometers from Svatove, and even closer to those high bluffs overlooking the city from its western approach. Once Ukraine takes those high positions overlooking the city, its defense is finished. Once Svatove is taken, the entire strategic calculation up north shifts dramatically. (See here for details.)

In addition to approaching Svatove, once Ukrainian forces take that road that runs north-south just west of the city (the P66), Russian troops further south in Kreminna will be in particular difficulty. In fact, Russian occupation officials have already started looting in anticipation of a strategic retreat. 

Chaos and disorder in #Kreminna. Shops are being plundered. I can’t make up what type of people they are, but i bet they like the occupation forces or are russians themself. They are recorded stealing all kinds of appliances. Getting ready for retreat? pic.twitter.com/9hBxy1lrWu

— NOËL 🇪🇺 🇺🇦 (@NOELreports) October 23, 2022

The babushka in the video is actually scolding the looters. Russians in Kreminna can still retreat to the east, toward Rubizhne and Severodonetsk, but the closer Ukraine approaches from the north on the P66, the easier it will be to maintain fire control over that retreat route—that is, the ability to lay artillery fire on any retreating forces. 

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How should we be reading the 2022 polls, in light of shifting margins and past misses? In this week’s episode of The Downballot Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen joins us to explain how his firm weights polls to reflect the likely electorate; why Democratic leads in most surveys this year should be treated as smaller than they appear because undecided voters lean heavily anti-Biden; and the surprisingly potent impact abortion has had on moving the needle with voters despite our deep polarization.

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