The Liberation of Kherson
While the war in Ukraine was not a major issue in the midterms, Ukrainians—and others who support their cause—watched Tuesday’s elections with some apprehension due to a streak of GOP skepticism toward U.S. aid to Ukraine. Last month, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested that Ukraine would no longer get a “blank check” once the Republicans got control of Congress. He and his allies promptly moved to reassure the party’s defense hawks that they weren’t advocating a cutoff of military aid, just better oversight, but the anti-Ukraine rhetoric from the right continued to make people nervous, especially with such prominent pundits as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham turning their shows into platforms for Kremlin talking points.
The GOP’s lackluster election performance, which may leave control of the Senate in Democratic hands, likely spells the end of any serious effort to curb aid to Ukraine. This comes amid other big developments certain to affect the war’s course: the Russians’ decision to withdraw from Kherson, abandoning their biggest prize since the February 24 invasion, and renewed but still uncertain talk of negotiations.
The likelihood of a Kherson withdrawal has been the talk of Ukrainian and dissident Russian media for weeks, especially since October 18, when Russia’s recently appointed top commander for the “special military operation” in Ukraine, Sergei “General Armageddon” Surovikin, gave his first media interview. He remarked on the “tense” situation around the city (a euphemistic acknowledgement of the Ukrainian counteroffensive) and mentioned the possibility of “difficult decisions” ahead. Ukrainian military leaders and analysts widely suspected a feint or a trap. At one point, Ukrainians suggested that the Russians were going to blow up the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, which would cause massive flooding in the Kherson region; Russians responded by accusing Ukrainians of planning such an explosion as a false flag. (The dam is fine, as of this writing.) In late October, the Russian-installed occupation authorities in Kherson also began to urge civilians to evacuate the city—reportedly forcing many unwilling residents to leave.
On November 3, the Russian white, blue, and red tricolor flag disappeared from the building of the regional administration in Kherson, triggering more speculation about Russian departure, though the flag was still flying on other government buildings nearby; it turned out that the occupation authority had merely moved to a different location. Ukrainian observers, including official figures such as presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych and Mykhailo Podolyak, openly said that they believed the Russian pullout was a feint intended to draw Ukrainian troops into an ambush and force them into high-casualty urban warfare, perhaps with Russian soldiers in civilian dress in order to create the impression that the Ukrainian army was battling pro-Russia locals.
Then, on Wednesday, came the surprise announcement: a clearly scripted conference between Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and Gen. Surovikin. Each man delivering his lines with painful awkwardness, Surovikin suggested that Russian troops should be withdrawn from Kherson on the grounds that holding the city had become “untenable” and moved to the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro river across from the city, and Shoigu gave him the green light for a withdrawal.-
Moment Surovikin and Shoygu admit defeat in the Kherson direction and announce the withdrawal of troops. pic.twitter.com/10UZgVuIcm
— Dmitri (@wartranslated) November 9, 2022
Ukrainians initially remained wary of Russian intentions, and concerns about a possible trap were not entirely allayed; Ukrainian Armed Forces spokeswoman Natalia Gumenyuk described the Surovikin/Shoigu announcement as a “staged show” and warned of “psychological and information warfare.”
Even as they made their awkward announcement, Shoigu and Surovikin tried to soften the blow for the Russian audience. Surovikin preceded his recommendation to vacate Kherson with a gung-ho report on the Russian army’s supposed recent successes in Ukraine, claiming that Russian troops are getting close to surrounding the town of Bakhmut and “liberating” the village of Pavlivka in the Donetsk region while inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy. (Both Ukrainian and independent Russian reports say that Russians are taking a beating in both areas, particularly near Pavlivka, and have suffered heavy losses in pointless offensives.) The withdrawal was also presented as a move dictated by noble concern for the preservation of human life, an explanation that can only elicit bitter laughs after the way Russians have conducted themselves in this war.
By Thursday, even cautious Ukrainian officials no longer doubted that the Russian withdrawal was real, and Ukrainian forces picked up speed as they advanced, liberating at least a dozen villages in the area. Even so, the predictions were that it would take anywhere from a few days to two weeks for the Ukrainians to retake Kherson.
In fact, by Friday morning, reliable sources were reporting that Ukrainian troops had reached the center of Kherson. These reports coincided with a statement from the Russian defense ministry affirming that all Russian troops were out of Kherson—supposedly with no losses, despite earlier claims from both Ukrainian and unofficial Russian sources that Russian soldiers had come under intense Ukrainian fire during the river crossing.
We will no doubt learn more about the details of the city’s liberation in the coming days—and, more depressingly, about the details of the occupation. Meanwhile, the liberators still have to look out for mines, booby traps, and other nasty surprises. But the blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine flies over Kherson once again, and that could be a turning point in the war.
Jubilant Ukrainians have raised flags and celebrated inside Kherson after Russian forces withdrew from the city in a hasty retreat in which some Kremlin soldiers apparently drowned.
— Sky News (@SkyNews) November 11, 2022
Social media soon filled with pictures and videos, picked up by the press as well, of the Ukrainian forces being welcomed in Kherson with tears of joy and hugs. Even aside from the city’s strategic significance, these images speak not only of Ukrainian victory but of the rightness of Ukraine’s cause—a triumph that is sure to inspire and energize Ukraine’s patriots as well as its supporters all over the world.
Amazing footage of the first Ukrainian troops reaching Kherson’s main square. pic.twitter.com/XsTb8S81fD
— Yaroslav Trofimov (@yarotrof) November 11, 2022
Meanwhile, for Russia, the impact of losing Kherson—not only logistical but psychological—is bound to be huge. Besides being a major port city, it was the only regional capital in Ukraine that the Russians were able to capture since the February 24 invasion. (Kherson surrendered on March 2, in the war’s early days before Ukraine had quite gotten its bearings.) It was also the biggest jewel in the crown of the four Ukrainian regions whose annexation, after blatantly fake “referendums,” Vladimir Putin announced in early October with so much pomp and circumstance. These lands, Putin and other high-level Russian officials declared, were now Russian and would be defended as such. The propaganda billboards declaring that “Russia is here forever!” still stand in Kherson even as Russia leaves. While Kremlin propagandists like Vladimir Solovyov defended the surrender of Kherson as a “painful” but wise decision and urged viewers to rally behind the military and the government, the stock phrases barely disguised their distemper. Hawkish bloggers and social media posters, less bound by Kremlin instructions, voiced dismay and anger far more openly; some even wanted “traitors” to blame.
And no wonder. Just a few days ago, pro-Russian Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić declared that the impending battle of Kherson was going to become “the decisive battle in the war in Ukraine,” comparable to the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II. He was echoed, in an interview published Tuesday, by noted Russian “political analyst,” former Duma member, and onetime Putin adviser Sergei Markov, who waxed hopeful that the battle of Kherson would “become for the Ukrainian Armed Forces what Stalingrad became for the Wehrmacht.” Now, many Ukrainians see Kherson as the Stalingrad of the Russian Wehrmacht—a turning point beyond which the Russian war effort is irrevocably doomed. Markov himself warned, on the eve of the surrender of Kherson, that such a surrender would inevitably escalate Ukrainian demands for Russian “capitulation.”
The Russian endgame in Kherson also featured a bizarre episode rich in eerie symbolism. The announcement of the Russian withdrawal on Wednesday coincided with the death, reportedly in a car crash, of the man who was the most recognizable face of Russian occupation in the city: Kirill Stremousov, the militantly pro-Kremlin deputy governor in the occupation regime who posted daily videos addressing the people of Kherson. A local pro-Russian activist with a history of assaults on politicians, journalists and police officers, Stremousov was, to put it charitably, an unusual character; about three weeks ago, he attracted some attention with a bizarre video in which he recited an anonymous poem—probably written as a satire of Russian imperialism, but apparently taken seriously by Stremousov—declaring that the “Russian homeland” would eventually encompass not only Ukraine but Poland, Romania, Germany, the Americas and, well, the whole planet. Perhaps more relevant to the current moment, he also made several public comments doggedly asserting that (1) Russia would never leave Kherson and (2) it would be a disgrace if it did. In a video made in October, he railed against the “inept military leaders” who had allowed the Ukrainian counteroffensive to succeed and even mused that a defense minister responsible for such a fiasco “could shoot himself as an officer.”
No one knows whether Stremousov’s death was the work of his Russian masters who found him inconvenient or his Ukrainian compatriots who loathed him as a collaborator—or, in fact, just a fatefully timed accident. But it certainly seems to signal, in dramatic fashion, the end of “Russian Kherson.”
The preparations for Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson also coincided with new talk of negotiations to end the war. In recent days, it has been reported that the Biden administration privately encouraged Ukrainian leadership to show its openness to negotiations with Russia, even with Putin at the helm. This would require Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to back away from a decree he signed on October 4, in response to Putin’s announcement that Russia was annexing those four Ukrainian regions, formally declaring that talks with Putin were “impossible” while leaving the door open to negotiating with another Russian leader.
Meanwhile, Russia has been making noises about resuming negotiations (which were suspended in March) since mid-September, when the Ukrainian counteroffensive kicked in. The problem is that those annexations in early October made any meaningful peace talks effectively impossible. “We’ll keep 20 percent of your land and promise we won’t try to take the rest” is not a negotiating position. Nor did Russia back away from its earlier demands that Ukraine commit to political neutrality, “denazification” and “demilitarization” as a condition for peace talks. (Markov reiterated these conditions in his November 8 interview.) What’s more, Russian officials also repeatedly floated the possibility of Ukraine peace talks without Ukraine—with the United States or Turkey, for example. That’s another nonstarter.
This week, perhaps in anticipation of the Kherson withdrawal, Russia suddenly seemed to shift its position: According to the Kremlin-affiliated RIA Novosti news agency, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was now saying that Russia was ready to negotiate with Ukraine with “no preconditions.” In response, Zelensky publicly said that Ukraine was prepared to negotiate, but with conditions—specifically, “restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the U.N. charter, compensation for all material losses caused by the war, punishment for every war criminal and guarantees that this does not happen again.”
There is little chance that Russia will agree to even some of these conditions, let alone all of them. Nonetheless, it seems that Putin wants peace talks and that, aside from his forays into nuclear blackmail, he is seeking these talks from a position of weakness. He is increasingly isolated and disrespected; even his partnership with China’s Xi Jinping only goes so far, as Xi’s smackdown over Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling has made clear. Putin’s recent attempt to withdraw from an agreement that allowed Ukraine to continue exporting grain and other commodities to world markets and to renew the threat of a Black Sea blockade fizzled when both NATO and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the deal was still on—and when Erdoğan pledged to protect Ukrainian ships transporting the grain. The hope Putin may have placed in Europe crying uncle when people have to face winter without Russian gas is fading as countries embrace energy-saving measures.
Meanwhile, the military situation in Ukraine is unlikely to rebound in Russia’s favor, particularly after the Kherson humiliation. Russia’s massive draft—the “partial mobilization” Putin announced in September—has allowed Russia to gain only enough advantage to slow down or stall the Ukrainian offensive while proving sufficiently unpopular and destabilizing in Russia that, at least for now, Putin has pledged that it has been completed and will not resume. The discontent is likely to grow with more casualties and more reports of the terrible conditions faced by the mobiki, as the conscripts are colloquially known. Female rebellion against conscription may be starting to materialize, with the wives and mothers of mobilized men gathering near the Ukrainian border to demand that their husbands and sons be moved away from the front lines. And a recent viral video showed conscripts in a training camp near Kazan loudly complaining about the lack of firewood and shower facilities and chanting “Get the fuck out!” at a general who tries to calm them down.
Still, the question remains: Faced with all the bad news, is Putin looking for a face-saving way out—or just a timeout during which he can rebuild and prepare to attack anew?
While diplomacy on specific issues should not be ruled out, the best way to end this war is to give the Ukrainians enough weapons and enough defense systems to either win militarily or negotiate on their own terms.
Which brings us back to the question of the U.S. midterms. The Russian establishment, as its reactions to the election outcome showed, was clearly expecting benefits from a Republican sweep. Indeed, the fact that the surrender of Kherson was announced the morning after the elections may not have been a coincidence. Solovyov suggested on his show that Russia had deliberately delayed the announcement out of concern that the news of a Ukrainian success would help Biden. That’s possible; Russians tend to vastly overestimate the amount of headspace they occupy in the American psyche. But it’s at least as likely that the connection was different: Putin may have delayed the decision in the hope that a Republican victory would put Ukrainians in a more vulnerable position.
The Ukrainians, on the other hand, seemed remarkably sanguine about a “red wave.” The day before the elections, when such a wave was still expected, Arestovych offered a surprisingly optimistic prognosis, arguing that the Ronald Reagan legacy in the Republican party was still strong enough that there was no real possibility of a GOP-dominated Congress denying aid to Ukraine in current circumstances—especially when three-quarters of Americans support aid to Ukraine. He acknowledged the Trumpist anti-Ukraine wing in the GOP—isolationists as well as those who “hate the Democrats so much that they’re willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” or even regard Putin as a “guardian of traditional values”; yet he also insisted that, even in a Republican-controlled Congress, they would not run the show. He even suggested that a Republican Congress might increase military aid to Ukraine and try to take credit for it, much as Trumpists have tried to give Trump credit for giving Kyiv (albeit under pressure) military aid that Barack Obama had denied.
After Tuesday’s vote, it seems the incoming House of Representatives is likely to have a slight Republican majority, while control of Senate could go either way. Which means Arestovych may well be correct. It’s even conceivable, if the post-midterm criticism of Donald Trump gains steam, that some latter-day MAGA converts will shift away from it again. Consider the case of J.D. Vance, who has blown about with the winds of public opinion. He initially proclaimed his indifference to what happens to Ukraine, then backtracked in the face of criticism from Ohio’s Ukrainian community, declaring that “Ukraine is a great ally to us and we want the Ukrainians to be successful” but stressing that we’ve already given enough and the Europeans need to step up. It’s entirely possible that, once he’s in the Senate, Vance will discover—if the military momentum favors Ukraine and the political momentum disfavors Trumpism—that, upon further study, we do need to give more.
The midterms certainly didn’t hinge on Ukraine; in a University of Maryland poll of adults in early October, only about 11 percent of respondents ranked foreign policy of any kind as one of their top three issues in the elections. On the other hand, support for Ukraine clearly didn’t hurt the Democrats; in the same poll, clear majorities of both Democrats and independents, and close to half of Republicans, said they were willing to endure “a lot” or “somewhat” higher energy prices and inflation if that was the cost of helping Ukraine. Nor has the far right (in tandem with the far left) been able to scare Americans with its “Biden will all get us killed in a nuclear war!” fearmongering.
In that sense, the outcome of the midterms certainly helps the pro-Ukraine camp. And if, as many Ukrainian and dissident Russian analysts suggest, Ukraine may win the war next year by successfully expelling Russian forces from its land, could such a victory help boost American politicians in both parties who believe in the liberal international order and in America’s role as the leader of the free world?