Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a rare live televised speech, said Wednesday that Russian troops would retreat from the west bank of the Dnipro River and give up the provincial capital of Kherson, the one regional capital they’d managed to capture in nearly nine months of fighting. Russian officials confessed that their supply lines were in jeopardy from the continued Ukrainian assault, giving Kyiv the victory it has so desperately sought after several months of major offensives on two fronts.
Coming just a day after Democrats had a better-than-expected result in the U.S. midterm elections, the battlefield victory gives Ukraine hope of more Western aid as Congress prepares to debate a lame-duck military aid package before the new Congress is sworn in next January. Though some U.S. and Ukrainian officials aren’t ruling out the possibility that Shoigu’s order could be a feint, the Russian retreat—if it proves real—would also be a political blow for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kherson Oblast was one of the sections of Ukraine that Russia pretended to annex in faux referendums this fall, vowing that “Russian” territory would never be surrendered.
The Ukrainian victory in the bloody counteroffensive into Kherson, which was captured by Russian forces just days into the war, showed just how much the Ukrainians had flipped the script from Putin’s prewar buildup. Unlike the lightning offensive into Russian-occupied areas of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian troops didn’t have the benefit of surprise in the south. Bit by bit, taking losses and lumps, Ukraine wore down Russian forces and supply lines backed with U.S.-provided rockets and NATO-standard artillery.
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Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch