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What would it mean for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine's Kherson? | News

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Attacking in the south, Ukrainian forces focused on the provincial capital Kherson, which had been under Russian control since the first days of the occupation.

The possible fall of the city will bring another humiliation to Russia after a series of battlefield defeats and other setbacks, further cornering President Vladimir Putin and laying the groundwork for a potential escalation of the war that has been going on for nearly eight months.

Here’s a look at Kherson’s military and political significance:

Why is the city such a prize?

With a pre-war population of 280,000, Kherson is the only regional capital captured by Russian forces. The city and surrounding areas fell into Moscow’s hands in the early days of the conflict as Russian troops rapidly pushed their attack north from Crimea, which was illegally annexed by the Kremlin in 2014.

Its loss was a major blow to Ukraine due to its location on the Dnieper River, close to the mouth of the Black Sea, and its role as a major industrial centre. Ukrainian resistance fighters have since challenged Russian troops for control of the city, with acts of sabotage and assassination of Moscow-appointed officials.

Kherson is also at a point where Ukraine can cut off fresh water from the Dnieper to the Crimea. Kyiv blocked these vital resources after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and Putin cited the need to restore them as a reason behind the decision to invade.

In the summer, Ukrainian troops launched relentless attacks to retake parts of the province, also called Kherson, one of four regions that Russia illegally annexed after last month’s fake referendums.

Ukraine used US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers to repeatedly hit an important bridge over the Dnieper in Kherson and a large dam that also serves as a crossing point. The strikes forced Russia to rely on barges and ferries, again targeted by Ukraine.

The attacks interrupted supply links with Kherson and the group of Russian forces on the western bank of the Dnieper, making them vulnerable to encirclement. Famine was exacerbated after a truck bomb blew up part of the strategic Kerch Bridge connecting Russia’s mainland with Crimea on 8 October, serving as an important supply hub for Russian forces in the south.

What was Russia’s reaction?

Putin attributed the Kerch Bridge attack to Ukraine’s military intelligence and responded by ordering the bombing of energy infrastructure across Ukraine.

He also declared martial law in Kherson and three other annexed territories in an attempt to strengthen Moscow’s dominance.

But as the Ukrainian forces stubbornly suppressed their southwesterly offensive along the Dnieper, the Russian troops found it increasingly difficult to stop their advance.

The newly appointed Russian commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, appeared to be laying the groundwork for a possible withdrawal from Kherson, acknowledging that the situation in the region was “pretty difficult” for Moscow and noting that the war situation there was still developing.

Initially rejecting talk of evacuating the city, Russian authorities sharply changed course this week, urging residents to go only to Russian-held areas where Kherson could be subject to heavy Ukrainian bombardment. Officials said 15,000 people, expected to be 60,000, had been resettled by Thursday. Officials of the regional administration, appointed by Moscow, also withdrew, along with other officials.

Moscow has warned that Ukraine could attempt to attack the dam at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station about 50 km (30 mi) upstream, flooding large areas, including the city of Kherson. Ukraine denies this and in turn accused Russia of planning to blow it up to cause a catastrophic flood before withdrawing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has claimed that the dam was removed by Russia, and urged world leaders to make clear to the Kremlin that blowing up the dam “will mean exactly the same as the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

What would losing Kherson mean for Russia?

Withdrawal from Kherson and other areas on the western bank of the Dnieper would shake Russia’s hopes of launching an offensive westward into Mykolaiv and Odessa to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. Such a move would deal a devastating blow to its economy. It would also allow Moscow to potentially build a land corridor into Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region, which is home to a key Russian military base.

“The loss of Kherson will turn all these southern dreams of the Kremlin to dust,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.

“Kherson is a key for the entire southern region, which will allow Ukraine to target important supply routes for Russian forces. The Russians will try to keep control by every means possible.”

For Ukraine, capturing Kherson would set the stage for recapturing the Russian-held part of the Zaporozhian region and other areas to the south and eventually returning to Crimea.

“Ukraine needs to wait for Kherson to get its hands on like a ripe apple, because the shortage of supplies for the Russian forces is getting worse day by day,” Zhdanov said.

Ukraine said it hopes to rapidly double the number of US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers that can precisely hit targets 80 km (50 mi) away.

Reclaiming control of Kherson means that Kiev can again cut off the water to Crimea.

“After the occupation of Kherson, the Russians will again have a fresh water problem in Crimea,” Zhdanov said. He said he could raise the stake if Putin faces losing Kherson.

“The Russians will be ready to wipe Kherson from the face of the Earth instead of giving it to Ukraine,” said Zhdanov.

Breaking the dam and causing major flooding in the mostly flat area would be Moscow’s way of doing this.

“The Russians want to show that a counterattack on Ukraine will face a harsh response from the Kremlin, which has declared the region to be part of Russia, and it’s scary to even think about what that response might be,” Zhdanov said.