What Will Putin Do With Kherson?
Russian forces captured the city early on, but keeping it requires resources they might prefer to use elsewhere.
Until a few weeks ago, Russian propaganda about the occupied city of Kherson was generally positive. Victory for Russian forces was assured. Statues of Lenin were going up. There were some pro-Ukrainian protests in the city, and some activity from Ukrainian partisans, but this was all just the final gasps of the dying project of Ukraine. Would Kherson be part of Russia, or part of a Russian-controlled Ukraine? The question was a relatively small one that could wait till the war was over.
Recently, however, a note of worry, or even disguised panic has creeped into the official statements and reports about the region. Pro-Russian activists in Kherson have been waiting a while for the war to end and for their fate to get decided. It has been more than 80 days since Putin massively expanded his invasion of Ukraine, but Russian forces have stalled or even totally retreated. Putin’s new offensive in Donbas is continuing, but it is continuing slowly, and there are reports that even this limited offensive is starting to peter out due to a lack of reserves. If there is not going to be any quick resolution and if Russia won’t subdue Ukraine, where does that leave Kherson?
A look at the map should show you why pro-Russian and Russian locals are worried. They fear, rightly, that the city of Kherson is a white elephant for Russia. It was a big deal when Russia captured this large city so early in the war, but that was back when Russia was still planning to destroy the Kyiv regime and march all the way to Odesa at least.
Now Kherson is a large, exposed Russian-occupied city right close to the frontlines. It is nice to have as a symbol, but it probably is not worth the trouble to keep it. Russia is surely expending resources to defend it, and with Russia struggling in Donbas, those resources are probably increasingly limited. Kherson is situated on the flat plain at the mouth of the Dnieper river, and the Ukrainian units are just 10-20 miles away, with only flat difficult-to-defend terrain in between.
Russia could probably significantly reduce its resource expenditure on this front by abandoning the city, withdrawing to the southern bank of the Dnieper and destroying the Antonovskiy Bridge just outside the city (the last river crossing before hitting the sea) and even destroying the bridge over the lock at the Kakhova dam about 35 miles upriver. (Destroying the dam itself might cause terrible floods and also might threaten Crimea’s water supply.) If Russian forces made these two crossings unusable, then there is no other bridge over the Dnieper till the city of Zaporizhzhia, about 150 miles upstream. This would allow Russia to consolidate its hold over the land-bridge to Crimea, retain control of the Crimea canal (which supplies fresh water to the peninsula) and even have enough territory to set up a little “Peoples’ Republic of Kherson” perhaps headquartered in the rural settlement of Kalanchak or Heniches’k, both not far over the “border” from Crimea. This is what Russia did in Donetsk and Luhansk, two proxy satellites that have still not joined Russia.
A Kherson Peoples’ republic would be less than ideal for the pro-Russian activists and Russian carpetbaggers in Kherson. Instead of being the new officials in a newly conquered “Russian” region or even the restored pro-Russian aristocracy in Moscow’s old colony, they would be disposable appendages in a contested zone not necessarily under the close protection of the Russian security forces. They face the possibility of getting assassinated by Ukrainian operatives or “disposed of” by Russians who are displeased with their performance—or who just decide they need a new face in Kherson. The original “separatist” leadership of Donbas was almost entirely replaced years ago, many of the replacements have since been replaced, and several have been killed (whether by Ukrainian or Russian operatives is an open question.) Also, if Russian forces decide to abandon the city of Kherson, even if they make it over the river, these pro-Russian activists would at best be officials in small rural settlements with limited infrastructure, rather than in a major city with an international airport.
Some civilians are already making the decision to leave, enough that the local propaganda apparatus needs to talk about it. An article in a pro-Russian outlet kherson.life discussed how and why people were fleeing the city of Kherson. Of course, the article begins by talking about people generally fleeing conflict and talk about “rumors” motivating some to leave the “peaceful” city now and Ukrainian “threats” to attack the city:
“The reason for the departure of many was rumors that spread around the city [of Kherson] at cosmic speed. Moreover… repeatedly announced an attack on Kherson and his liberation. It is clear that such statements do not add optimism to the layman. Especially the TV from both sides shows what is left of Mariupol and Rubizhne after urban battles. So people leave everything they have acquired for decades and leave for the unknown, and no one can say what awaits them there.”
A few days ago the Ukrainian outlet Ukrainskaya pravda reported (and it was translated by YahooNews) that the Russian-appointed “leaders” of Kherson were getting ready to get out of dodge and break for Crimea. The report included a video of a phone intercept provided by the Ukrainian security services of some “local collaborators” talking about the deteriorating situation, and about leaving:
“or the seventh day there has been no [Russian provided] humanitarian aid. … Now mothers are being given 10 thousand rubles each. They switched, in short, to mothers. … [i.e., they used to hand out aid to everyone and now they are focusing on mothers.] ... If nothing changes, we have to escape in June … that’s it, f**ck it, we’ll go to Crimea. … Karinka and I are going to Crimea for the whole summer. She will be a waitress somewhere, I will be a bartender, a waiter, or a bouncer, like I used to be."
As such, one proposal would skip the messy business of establishing a “People’s Republic.” At a press conference on May 11, Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian puppet administration in Kherson, showed that he was afraid of being left behind. Instead of an independence “referendum” followed by an indeterminate period of limbo or a peoples’ republic, he wants Kherson to just be declared part of Russia: “Kherson is Russia. The Kherson People’s Republic will not be created; there will be no referendum. This will be one single decree based on the appeal of the leadership of the Kherson region to the President of the Russian Federation, and there will be a request to include the region into a full-fledged region of the Russian Federation.”
Stremousov could not have been pleased with the Kremlin’s response. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “If such an appeal will be or will not be, the first thing is that the inhabitants of the Kherson region should decide this. And the inhabitants of the Kherson region should also determine their fate. Of course, this issue should be clearly and carefully verified and assessed by lawyers and lawyers, because, of course, such fateful decisions should have an absolutely clear legal background, legal justification, be absolutely legitimate, as was the case with Crimea.”
Over the weekend kherson.life published a short item stating that, “According to specialists in state law, in accordance with Russian law, the regions of Ukraine must first decide to secede from Ukraine and declare their independence. Their recognition by the Russian Federation would open the way for them to join Russia … It is still premature to hold referendums in the liberated regions before the complete cessation of the special operation and the denazification of Ukraine.”
This could change tomorrow, based on a statement by Putin or a decision by some of his servants, but based on these statements it looks like Russia will take its time and eventually hold a “referendum” for Kherson independence, followed by that period of limbo. On the other hand, if a “peoples’ republic” is established in Kherson, along with a story about how the “local militia” have been “pushed back” by the Ukrainians, it would be a great way for Russia to make an embarrassing retreat without admitting it is making an embarrassing retreat.
If current trends continue, and battlefield defeats leave Russia with insufficient resources to prop up its proxies, then pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, Luhansk, and even Crimea could feel the heat soon. There is not yet a good chance of this happening, but who would have predicted the terrible battlefield defeats the Russian army has suffered? And even if this does not happen this summer, what about some time after that? As long as an independent Ukraine exists, there is the possibility that the thugs Russia uses in the occupied regions will face justice, perhaps in a scenario where Putin or his successor falls and Ukraine reclaims the territory.
An old voice from the conflict, one of the original leaders of the “pro-Russian separatists” in Ukraine, Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin, has even chimed in on this point. He is mainly known by the nickname “Strelkov.” (“Strelkov” means “shooter,” and “Girkin”—his real name—sounds very close to the British word for pickle.) Strelkov is a retired Russian FSB officer who showed up in Donetsk early in the war and commanded the “separatist” forces. He was removed in August 2014 and has since been rhetorically sniping at his various replacements from the sidelines. Recently he weighed in on the situation in Kherson on his social media page, and made the point, though from the opposite side, that Russia’s proxies will never be safe untill Ukraine is destroyed:
“As far as I am concerned, I fully support it [the integration of Kherson into Russia]. I support their desire to join. However, I am not particularly happy. Because I am a historian by education. And I remember / understand very well that it is only possible to rejoice about territorial acquisitions with any justification when the enemy (from whom these territories were taken away) is completely defeated, surrendered, or accepts peace on our terms. So far, this has not happened [with Ukraine] … not only Kherson, or even Donetsk and Luhansk, but also Sevastopol and Simferopol can only rejoice at their final reunification with Russia when the so-called ‘Ukraine’ either capitulates, or (a less desirable option) we conclude a permanent peace with Ukraine’s remnants (located somewhere in Eastern Poland, preferably beyond the Bug river). In the meantime, this bright event is not just very far away, but with each passing day it is getting further and further.”
I can’t agree with Strelkov often, but in this case he is right: it is not over till it is over.