October 22, 2022

Institute for the Study of War: Russian forces continue their risk-laden withdrawal from Kherson Oblast

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces continued to withdraw from western Kherson Oblast while preparing to conduct delaying actions that will likely be only partially effective. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces have completely abandoned their positions in Charivne and Chkalove (both approximately 33km northwest of Nova Kakhovka), and Russian officers and medics have reportedly evacuated from Beryslav.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff added that Russian forces are also removing patients from the Kakhovka Hospital on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, likely to free up hospital beds for Russian military casualties that may result from the withdrawal across the river.[2] The Ukrainian General Staff noted that some Russian elements are preparing Kherson City for urban combat, while other servicemembers continue to flee the city via the ferry operating in the vicinity of the Antonivsky Bridge.[3] The UK Ministry of Defense reported on October 22 that Russian forces completed construction of a barge bridge alongside the damaged bridge and forecasted that the barge bridge would become a critical crossing point for Russian forces as Ukrainian forces advance toward Kherson City.[4] A large part of the Kherson City population has also reportedly left the city.[5]

Russian forces are preparing a series of delaying actions with mixed efficacy. Russian forces are likely preparing to destroy the dam at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (KHPP), flooding and widening the Dnipro River to delay any Ukrainian advances.[6] Russian occupation authorities in Nova Kakhovka are likely attempting to moderate the resultant flooding; Nova Kakhovka Occupation head Vladimir Leontyev said on October 22 that Russian authorities are lowering the volume of water from the reservoir behind the dam to minimize damage in case the KHPP is destroyed but stayed true to the false narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, would blow the dam.[7] Ukraine has no interest destroying the dam and every interest in preserving the energy supply in newly-liberated parts of Kherson Oblast. Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reiterated that Russian military leadership has moved their officer corps across the river but left newly-mobilized men on the western bank of the Dnipro River as a detachment left in contact.[8] Using such inexperienced forces to conduct a delaying action could prompt a Russian rout if Ukrainian forces choose to press the attack, as ISW previously assessed.[9] One Russian milblogger noted that the situation in Kherson Oblast is dire for Russian troops, noting that it is ”virtually impossible” for Russia to evacuate troops from the first lines of defense and that only two questions remain: how to withdraw the final front line of forces, and how to explain the withdrawal to the Russian population.[10]

Russian occupation authorities ordered the forcible “evacuation” of civilians from Kherson City on October 22. The Russian Kherson Occupation Administration announced that “all citizens of Kherson must immediately leave the city” and said that all civilians and “all departments and ministries of civil administration must now cross over to the [east] bank of the [Dnipro River].”[11] The occupation administration cited the “tense” situation at the front, “increased danger of massive shelling of the city and the threat of terrorist attacks” and provided instructions for where evacuees can find boats to take them across the river. The occupation administration encouraged evacuees to bring clothes, valuables, and documents, indicating that they do not expect a rapid Russian or civilian return to western Kherson. Russian forces expect to leave the city and are therefore likely trying to depopulate parts of the oblast that Ukraine will recapture, damaging the long-term social and economic viability of southern Ukraine. Russian authorities are likely also making initial efforts to evacuate at least those civilians who are willing to cooperate with Russian occupation authorities and would otherwise be in the path of flooding resulting from the blown Kakhovka dam.

Russian forces conducted massive missile and drone attacks to degrade Ukrainian energy infrastructure in nine oblasts on October 22. The Ukrainian General Staff reported on October 22 that Russian forces launched 40 missile strikes and 16 Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones at Ukrainian infrastructure and that Ukrainian forces shot down 20 Russian cruise missiles and 11 Russian drones.[12] Russian strikes hit Ukrainian energy infrastructure in Volyn, Rivne, Kharkiv, Khmelnytskyi, Kirovohrad, Cherkasy, Zaporizhia, Odesa, and Mykolaiv oblasts. Ukrenergo, the Ukrainian state energy company, announced on October 22 that the scale of Russian strikes on October 22 met or exceeded the scale and effect of Russian strikes on October 10-12, which Russian President Vladimir Putin had falsely implied were a discrete response to Ukraine’s October 8 attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge.[13] Instead, Russian forces are likely attempting to degrade Ukraine’s will to fight and to force the Ukrainian government to apply additional resources to protecting civilians and energy infrastructure in lieu of channeling those resources toward Ukraine’s counteroffensives in the east and south.

Ongoing Russian strikes on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure are extraordinarily unlikely to erode the Ukrainian will to fight but will increasingly pose an economic and humanitarian challenge for Ukraine as temperatures drop. Russian shelling and strikes have damaged approximately 30% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in recent weeks, prompting rolling blackouts across the country, not just along the front lines.[14] Blackouts combined with cold winter weather and damaged civilian buildings will likely increase the suffering of Ukraine’s civilian population this winter. Russia’s campaign of targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure is creating a humanitarian tragedy without meaningfully altering the battlefield situation, and Russian excuses for such strikes are wearing increasingly thin. The Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nevenzya, claimed on October 22 that Russian drones are only hitting civilian targets in Ukraine because Ukrainian defensive fire requires the drones to change course, a bizarre admission of culpability.[15]

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin continues to create rifts within the Russian government by publicizing the so-called “Wagner line” of fortifications in northeastern Ukraine, which appears misaligned with Kremlin-led narratives on the course of the war. Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels announced that Russian regional officials paused the extension of the Wagner Line fortifications that run behind the line of contact in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and into Russia’s Belgorod Oblast.[16] Prigozhin accused the Russian bureaucracy—which he characterized as ”bureaucrat-enemies”—of ”directly opposing the interests of the population” and not protecting the Russian population by supporting the construction of the line. The Russian nationalist community has repeatedly accused the Kremlin of failing to defend the Belgorod Oblast border, and Prigozhin may be attempting to amplify their demands. The Kremlin is likely attempting to maintain its limited framing of the war, which will likely continue to upset the nationalist community that is seemingly concerned by the lack of defenses around Belgorod Oblast. Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels previously indicated that there is an ongoing schism within the Kremlin’s power circles between officials that are hesitant to continue the war due to personal interest and those in favor of Russian total victory.[17]

Russian maps show that Prigozhin’s proposed Wagner Line extension would defend the border between Belgorod Oblast and Ukraine’s Sumy, Kharkiv, and Luhansk oblasts, but notably would not cover northern Luhansk Oblast up to the line of contact, placing it at odds with Kremlin promises to defend all of Luhansk.[18] Other maps show that the Luhansk-Donetsk Wagner Line segment will largely only defend the territory of Luhansk Oblast that Russian proxy forces controlled prior to their February 24 full-scale invasion. The line covers some newly occupied settlements like Lysychansk, Zolote, and Popasna, but excludes Kreminna and Severodonetsk.[19] Prigozhin and Wagner commanders are likely preparing to defend the positions they think they can realistically hold, not the present extent of Russian lines or all of the territory the Kremlin claims to have annexed, and are likely not confident in Russia’s ability to defend settlements north of Lysychansk such as Kreminna and Svatove.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces continued large-scale strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure. Ongoing strikes are unlikely to erode Ukrainian will to fight but will pose economic and humanitarian challenges throughout the winter.
  • Russian forces continued to withdraw from western Kherson Oblast while preparing for delaying actions that will likely be only partially effective.
  • Occupation authorities in Kherson Oblast ordered civilians to evacuate east on October 21. Evacuations from Kherson City will support likely Russian plans to blow up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Plant (HPP) dam to cover their withdrawal.
  • Prigozhin-led efforts to build a “Wagner Line” of defensive fortifications extend through central Luhansk Oblast and in limited capacity into Belgorod.
  • Prigozhin’s efforts and messaging, including the creation of the “Wagner Line,” are increasingly out of line with Kremlin rhetoric and are critical of what Prigozhin claims are slow-moving “bureaucrat-enemies.” Such activism endears Prigozhin to Russian nationalists, who are dissatisfied with limited Kremlin escalation and MoD disorganization.
  • Russian sources reported Ukrainian counteroffensives in the direction of Kreminna and Svatove on October 22.
  • Russian forces conducted limited counterattacks with no confirmed advances to regain lost territory in Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk oblasts on October 22.
  • Crimean occupation authorities banned filming of infrastructure and military logistics likely due to continued Ukrainian strikes targeting Russian supply hubs and lines.
  • ISW identified additional reports on October 22 that Russian mobilization has not met force generation goals and will likely continue in alternative forms.
  • Russian and occupation administration officials continued to forcibly relocate residents in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine as of October 22.
  • Russian and occupation officials continued to restrict the movement of residents living in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine and increase the checkpoint controls as of October 22.

(For full report: https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-october-22

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