In the 37th week of war, Russia announced it was abandoning the western reaches of Kherson region in the south as indefensible, potentially handing Ukraine another major victory after humiliating retreats from Kyiv and Chernihiv and a rout in Kharkiv region in the north.
In a highly staged video released by the Russian defence ministry on Wednesday, the overall commander of forces in Ukraine, Sergey Surovikin, told defence minister Sergei Shoigu, “After a comprehensive assessment of the current situation, we suggest taking defence along the left shore [east bank] of the Dnipro river. Understand, this is not an easy decision, but at the same time, we will preserve the lives of our servicemen, and in general the combat-readiness of the group of forces.”
Shoigu replies, “Sergey Vladimirovich, I agree with your conclusions and suggestions. For us, the lives of Russian servicemen are always a priority.”
It was Surovikin’s first major decision since taking over command a month earlier. The battle for Kherson region may be pivotal to the war, a fight he said he did not want to take place “in a limited area”.
The video appeared scripted to counter widespread reports that thousands of newly mobilised troops were being sent to battle untrained and ill-equipped.
In a similar video the Kremlin released on October 28, Shoigu told Russian President Vladimir Putin, “We pay special and separate attention to [training], because it is necessary to send the prepared, trained, equipped.”
“Absolutely, this is how it should be done,” replied Putin.
Ukraine has already won back half the territory Russia occupied this year.
Despite claims that Russia mobilised 300,000 men in September and October and fielded 41,000 of them, Moscow has been unable to claw back territory or make new conquests, putting it in a defensive posture.
Ukraine’s military leadership has made clear in interviews that it considers liberating Kherson and Crimea – annexed by Russia in 2014 – as keys to winning the war.
Kyiv’s forces launched an offensive on occupied Kherson on August 29, and has been building up forces there.
“[Ukraine’s Armed Forces] are preparing for the next stage of the attack on the Kherson region,” Kirill Stremousov Russia’s deputy occupation governor, warned on November 5. “Brigade artillery groups, mortar batteries, tactical planes and army aviation helicopters are conducting massive fire in preparation for the assault,” he said.
The following day, occupation authorities said Kherson city had lost power after Ukrainian “terrorists” bombed concrete pylons carrying high-voltage lines.
Stremousov was killed, reportedly in a car crash, on Wednesday, the day of Russia’s retreat announcement.
Russian forces have been withdrawing men and equipment from the west, or right, bank of the Dnieper for weeks.
They said 60,000 teachers, doctors and other professionals were evacuated – an effort Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed, saying “the civilian population should not suffer.”
Nonetheless, Ukraine braced for a possible trap.
“This could be a manifestation of a particular provocation in order to create the impression that the settlements are abandoned, that it is safe to enter them, while they are preparing for street battles,” said Natalya Humenyuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern forces.
Russia’s retreat on the battlefield is about to be compounded by financial concerns.
Skyrocketing coal, oil and gas prices meant that Russia made $120bn more from hydrocarbon exports this year than it did in 2021, said a new report from the Bruegel think-tank, giving it a current account surplus of $198bn from January to September and helping it to finance a war whose cost to Russia has previously been estimated at between $223m and $500m a day.
While Bruegel believed Russia’s current account surplus will be $240bn for the year, it expected this windfall is about to end.
Europe stopped importing Russian coal in August.
In December, it will stop importing Russian crude.
And from February, the continent hopes to wean itself from Russian refined petroleum products.
“European income will be zero for Russia next year, but what its income will be from alternative clients is unpredictable because we don’t know the quantities that will be exported and their prices,” Maria Demertzis, deputy director of the Bruegel Institute told Al Jazeera.
Those alternative clients, said Demertzis, are mainly Russia and China.
“Both currently purchase at a very high discount compared to Europe, so the income to Russia will be much reduced,” she said.
Russia has also faced new costs for weapons purchases.
During the first seven months of the war, Russia relied on its massive stockpiles of shells and rockets. But reports have surfaced in the last two months suggesting Moscow has been buying ordnance, as Ukraine has targeted its ammunition warehouses with devastating effectiveness.
Last month, Belarus railway workers tallied that their country had supplied 65,000 tonnes of ammunition to Russia in 1,940 rail cars.
Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, said Russia had ordered 1,700 drones of different types from Iran.
This month, Russia signed a new contract for 1,000 Iranian weapons of different kinds, including 200 drones that were shipped across the Caspian Sea to Astrakhan, intelligence said.
A US intelligence report in September said that Russia was buying millions of artillery shells from North Korea. Both Moscow and Pyongyang have denied these claims.
Rooting for Republicans
The US midterm elections also failed to create the kind of political turmoil many Russians hoped might stanch the flow of money to Ukraine’s war effort.
Both US House and Senate majorities hung in the balance two days after the November 8 vote, belying expectations of a Republican takeover of Congress.
A Democratic-controlled Congress has approved $65.9bn in military and financial aid to Ukraine.
But Russia may have sensed an opportunity on September 30, when the most recent aid package passed the US House of Representatives largely along party lines for the first time. Only 10 Republicans supported Democrats.
“It seems that there is a minority wing of the Republican Party that are more sceptical about aid to Ukraine,” Aristotle Tziampiris, chair of the Department of International and European Studies of the University of Piraeus told Al Jazeera.
“Historically, there is a strain that is averse to foreign entanglements. It could be coming from one party or the other … Some intellectuals think it’s a mistake for the US to alienate both China and Russia at the same time,” said Tziampiris.
Russian commentators had made no secret of their hopes of blunting President Joe Biden’s hawkish Ukraine policy.
Political commentator Vladimir Kornilov on Russia-1 state TV show 60 Minut: “The Republicans will have to annihilate Biden. As Biden’s antagonists, they are an easy choice. They’ll block the passage of defence budgets. This will benefit us.”
At the same time, Russia has appeared more willing to resume peace talks with Ukraine in recent weeks, but observers said this could have been a tactic aimed at influencing US voters.
Russia’s ambassador to the US played on this dovish theme days before the midterms. “Our so-called partners continue the erroneous policy, thinking that the problem can be solved on the battlefield,” said Anatoly Antonov.
Emmanuel Karagiannis, a reader in international security at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera, “Despite the pro-negotiation discourse, the Kremlin has not changed its strategy in Ukraine. On the contrary, the Russian military has targeted the country’s energy infrastructure to increase the suffering of civilians. Yet, Moscow is aware that certain elements within both parties in the Congress are increasingly reluctant to support Kyiv without any political conditions.”
For months, Russian leadership has cultivated the notion that it might resort to nuclear weapons to achieve what it cannot with conventional forces, but last week received discouragement from its most important ally, China.
“The international community should … jointly oppose the use or threats to use nuclear weapons, advocate that nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis in Eurasia,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said.
His remarks came on the same day the G7 condemned “Russia’s irresponsible nuclear rhetoric” as “unacceptable”.
Experts agreed that the use of a nuclear device would quickly escalate the war, because Ukraine borders NATO countries.
“The West would face an existential dilemma,” said Karagiannis. “If the Russian attack [went] unpunished, Ukraine would be forced to surrender and the Western deterrence strategy would be challenged enormously.”
Such a precedent would perturb China, noted Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews.
“If states around the world see that nuclear weapons can now be used to compel their capitulation to conquest, what would stop Taiwan and Japan, for instance, from developing their own nuclear deterrent?” he wrote in a column on Substack. “That would be probably the worst possible development from a Chinese perspective.”