Kyiv, Ukraine – From propaganda billboards plastered all over Kherson city to fiery speeches by Russian and Moscow-appointed officials, the mantra repeated over much of the past year was the same: “Russia is here forever”.
But such declarations invite mockery these days, as tens of thousands of Russian servicemen hastily pulled out of the capital of the eponymous southern region on Thursday, with Ukrainian troops entering it a day later.
Russia’s retreat from the largest urban centre it captured since it invaded Ukraine marks a tectonic shift in the war, gives a boost to the faltering Ukrainian economy and further undermines Moscow’s geopolitical prestige in the countries of the former Soviet Union and beyond, analysts have said.
The Belgium-sized Kherson province was seized within days after the February 24 invasion began, becoming Russia’s largest and most strategic gain.
In late September, Russia proclaimed it had annexed the Kherson region and three other Ukrainian provinces, a move denounced as illegal by Ukraine and its allies.
But on Wednesday evening, as a weeks-long Ukrainian counteroffensive continued gathering pace, Russian officials announced a withdrawal from the capital city to save the lives of soldiers amid difficulties to keep supply lines open.
Shortly after the pullback announcement, pro-Kremlin figures bemoaned the loss of dozens of tanks and armed-personnel carriers to Ukrainian servicemen.
“Why wasn’t it all blown up or burned down?” Yuri Kotyonok, a Russian military correspondent, asked rhetorically in a Telegram post on Thursday.
On Friday morning, even before the Ukrainian forces’ returned to Kherson, pro-Kyiv civilians flew the Ukrainian flag over the city hall.
Still, the Kremlin claimed the region remains “part of Russia”, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying, “there can’t be any changes”.
The reality, however, is that Moscow has lost its only stronghold on the west bank of the Dnieper River, Ukraine’s largest and widest.
“Ukrainian forces will not let Russians cross the Dnieper any more,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russia expert in Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera.
The pull-out also means Russian forces “lose a chance to part Ukraine in two” by advancing towards central regions, he said.
What can be split in two instead is the crescent-shaped chunk of Russia-held eastern and southern Ukraine.
Emboldened Ukrainian forces could march across the sparsely populated steppe areas towards the southeastern ports of Berdyansk, Melitopol and Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, Mitrokhin said.
When it happens, Russian forces in the still-occupied part of Kherson region may be forced back into the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, while in the east, they will need to withdraw to the separatist-controlled parts of the rustbelt Donbas region.
After Russia withdrew its troops from near Kyiv and northern Ukraine in April, it planned to concentrate on seizing all of southern Ukraine, including the Black Sea port of Odesa and areas bordering Transdnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region in neighbouring Moldova.
These plans now also seem to have fallen through, Mitrokhin said.
But what was paramount, he added, was the final failure of Russia’s designs to topple President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government – Moscow calls it a “Nazi junta” – and to “de-militarise” his nation by thwarting its plans to join NATO.
“Now, there’s no more talk about any significant victories, let alone the ‘de-Nazification’ and ‘demilitarisation’ of Ukraine,” Mitrokhin said.
Some Western analysts, meanwhile, said the triumphant advance of Ukrainian forces strengthened by Western weaponry might not even be hampered by freezing conditions in the months ahead.
“Winter weather could disproportionately harm poorly-equipped Russian forces in Ukraine, but well-supplied Ukrainian forces are unlikely to halt their counteroffensives due to the arrival of winter weather and may be able to take advantage of frozen terrain to move more easily than they could in the muddy autumn months,” the Institute for the Study of War said on Thursday.
The Kherson region is a major source of grain, vegetables and fruit, including the famously sweet watermelons whose absence was decried this year.
The areas abandoned by Russians include irrigated fields near the giant Nova Kakhovka dam.
Ukraine is “getting its agriculture potential back”, Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera, saying the development could give a boost to Ukraine’s nosediving economy.
The Nova Kakhovka dam, meanwhile, also serves as a source of water for the arid Crimean Peninsula.
One of the first steps Russia took after seizing Kherson in March was the resumption of water supply via the Crimean Canal that Ukraine had dammed in 2014.
As soon as Ukrainian forces take control of the dam, it is expected that Crimea will yet again lose its largest source of water.
Kherson is also home to food-processing plants and shipyards that manufacture vessels used to transport grain and steel, Ukraine’s main exports.
But navigation is so far impossible as Russia controls the Kinburn Spit, its last toehold in the southern Mykolaiv region, that blocks the way from the Dnieper to the Black Sea and farther into the Mediterranean, Kushch said.
‘No painless perspectives’
On a larger scale, the loss of Kherson spells further tightening of political screws in Russia as the Kremlin intensifies pressure on war critics.
“There are no painless perspectives – either further, indefinite self-isolation from the world if the Kremlin keeps things under control, or a cycle of domestic political turbulence that can open up positive possibilities and pacification or a further political, economic and cultural degradation,” Russia-based analyst Pavel Luzin wrote.
Analysts also said the Kherson retreat marked the culmination of the Kremlin’s geopolitical losses in the former Soviet Union, especially in Central Asia, where pro-Moscow sentiments have been strong for decades.
“Naturally, Russia’s authority as a regional power is undermined in the eyes of Central Asian states,” Alisher Ilkhammov, head of Central Asia Due Diligence, a UK-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
“It creates a certain vacuum of geostrategic leadership and corresponding patronage in the region, something China and Turkey rush in to fill,” he said.
Moreover, Russia’s losses in Ukraine, as well as the West’s stance towards Ukraine, are being closely monitored by China.
“Beijing is watching Russia’s actions in Ukraine and tries on the consequences that affect Russia, assuming what they could mean” to China in case it chooses to invade Taiwan, Temur Umarov, an analyst for Carnegie Politika, a think-tank formerly based in Moscow, told Al Jazeera.