The situation is tense, and the most difficult decisions will have to be taken. This statement by General Sergei Surovikin, Commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, has not coincidentally triggered a stormy wave of reactions. Following his staged interview, Vladimir Putin suddenly declared martial law in the occupied Ukrainian territories. What does all this mean: an admission of defeat or, on the contrary, the beginning of escalation?
Since the end of February, when Russia launched its ‘special operation for a few days’, the Russians have had few successes to boast of: the Russian forces, repulsed and expelled from Kyiv, Kharkiv and elsewhere, stopped in the Donbas, and in some places also driven back by the Ukrainian counterattack, only in the Kherson area did they initially enjoy a relatively easy victory.
Here, presumably due to betrayals within the Ukrainian chain of command, the Russian forces advanced the furthest and gained a foothold in Kherson itself, which was occupied and declared part of Russia.
However, over the last few months, it has become clear to the Russian forces, which have been pounded by Ukrainian artillery and HIMARS volleys, that no orders and signatures from Putin mean anything. On the contrary, the time of difficult choices is approaching – to be destroyed or to be taken prisoner.
This is the situation that arose after the damage to the bridges across the Dnieper River on its right bank caused the Russian forces, which were constantly under fire, to run out of weapons, ammunition, and food supplies, and finally to the massive retreat of the puppet authorities and the Russian army from Kherson. However, this retreat could be not only deceptive but also very dangerous.
Seeking to avoid an embarrassing encirclement
The war in Ukraine is going according to plan. The Kremlin, which has long supported this version, seems to have decided to change the record and bring some reality to the table: the ‘tense’ situation in the Kherson area, where the Ukrainians are methodically continuing their counter-offensive, has been acknowledged by both the commander of the Russian occupation forces, Surovikin, and the head of the local occupation authorities, Volodymyr Saldo.
The latter announced the ‘evacuation’ of the local authorities and civilians, which in reality means the flight of the officials of the occupying power and the forced eviction of tens of thousands of civilians in Kherson region.
At the time, Surovikin was even more outspoken, which is unusual in this war for Russian commanders to change their socks. His explanations about being prepared for “the most difficult decisions” because of the “tense situation” were met with mixed reviews.
Some versions point out that this is a face-saving attempt by the Russian forces to avoid a total rout in Kherson, i.e., to avoid repeating the sad example of the Egyptian 3rd Army from the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
The Egyptians, who had started the war victoriously, moved with Soviet military advisers to the right bank of the Suez Canal, but were cut off by an Israeli counterattack. At least 30 000 starving Egyptians remained surrounded, unable to make any difference until the end of the war, even though Israeli tanks had come within 100 km of the Egyptian capital.
“Surovikin’s and Salda’s statements are probably an attempt to create the information conditions for a full Russian retreat across the Dnieper, which will result in the city of Kherson and other significant areas of Kherson being ceded to the advancing Ukrainian troops,” analysts at the US Institute of Naval Analyses said. British military analysts offer similar insights.
Withdrawal is just a smoke screen
This time, however, there seems to be no sign of a simple retreat. After all, Russia already considers Kherson to be part of its territory and retreating from the “Russian city” and handing it over to the enemy is not just an embarrassment for the country’s military forces, but also for its political leadership.
A few hours after the ‘evacuation’ of Kherson were announced by the puppet government, Putin himself spoke publicly to the cameras at a meeting of the Russian Security Council and announced that he had signed a decree imposing martial law in four annexed regions of Ukraine – the so-called ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
Once again, the avalanche of assessments and theories has been unleashed: what does this all mean? On the one hand, the official version that the Kremlin is supposedly doing this to protect “its” territories from “Ukrainian aggression” is not widely believed, even in Russia itself.
On the other hand, the estimates that this will be an attempt to terrorise the civilian population, to tighten control over the occupied territories, to deport citizens to the Russian regions, to restrict exit from the occupied regions, to introduce transport checks, to use the media for ‘defence’ purposes have also raised doubts. After all, the Russian army has taken all these measures without any special orders, and it has taken over the occupied territories and done as it pleases.
Moreover, the Kremlin’s own explanations that the decision was taken because of the ‘threat of terrorism from Ukraine’ are also both at odds with reality and do not change anything – the Ukrainians continue to counter-attack by taking control of their own territories, while behind the Russian lines, even on Russian territory, for example, in Belgorod, strategic facilities continue to be blown up, even though strict security measures have already been taken there.
Actions such as curfews, travel and residence restrictions, military censorship, more classified data, restrictions and confiscation of weapons and drugs, bans on labour strikes, etc. In Kherson, where the Ukrainian forces are approaching, these have been applied before, but have done little to overcome Ukrainian resistance – both guerrilla and regular forces are active here.
Running away to strike a nuclear strike?
However, there are other, much gloomier versions. Yuri Shvets, a former KGB officer and former Putin cadet, has pointed out a series of strange coincidences. The US, which even before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine openly shared intelligence with its allies and accurately predicted the onset of an impending open conflict, has recently been sending very serious signals about Russia.
The Kremlin has already been openly warned not to use weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, as Putin himself threatened back in September. And although nuclear weapons have not yet been used in Ukraine, the intensification of Western intelligence capabilities over the Black Sea, where American and British reconnaissance aircraft are constantly circling, as well as the urgent visit of the British Defence Secretary to Washington, have given rise to suspicions of a worst-case scenario.
UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace did not elaborate too much on the unplanned and sudden trip to the Pentagon, but the mere fact that a live, rather than a secure teleconference, was chosen for the urgent talks on “common security concerns relating to the situation in Ukraine” is, according to the British themselves, telling. J. Shvets himself was impressed by this.
“He was not prepared for the meeting, not even met by an honour guard, but the subject of his talks with the US Secretary of Defence was so serious that they went into the night and were joined by the US President’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan,” recalled J. Shvets, who said that they were discussing more serious issues than military support for Ukraine, such as the possible use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the talks were attended by the military commanders of both countries, and thus by both political and military leaders. And how does this relate to the public resignations of V. Putin and S. Surovikin?
According to J. Shvets, the declaration of martial law and S. Surovikin’s allusions to Ukraine’s alleged plans to use ‘forbidden military methods in the Kherson area’ may be indicative of one thing. Kherson is currently home to around 300 000 people, and even if some of them were forcibly evicted, tens of thousands would undoubtedly remain.
“I would like to be wrong, but there is a connection. (…) I am talking about the worst-case scenario: the forced removal of people from Kherson, the withdrawal of Russian forces, the deployment of Ukrainian forces, and the declaration of a mortal danger to the existence of Russia, according to Russia’s own overstretched doctrine, because the Russian city has been taken over by the enemies and because weapons of mass destruction are being used,” said J. Shvets, recalling once again the conditions Russia has declared time and again under what circumstances nuclear weapons can be used.
It is one thing to shell Russia and the cities it occupies; it is quite another to take them over. Moreover, once civilians have been distracted and expelled to the depths of Russia, the use of nuclear weapons against a town where Ukrainian forces are entering can be interpreted as a legitimate target, at least according to the Kremlin’s twisted logic. No one can guarantee that V. Putin will not hesitate in such a scenario.
The use of a nuclear weapon at Kherson – the detonation of a 50-kiloton warhead of the smallest standard yield used in cruise and ballistic missiles – would destroy everything within a radius of a few hundred metres, within a radius of a few kilometres – the damage from the radiation and the destruction would be horrific.
However, the best-case scenario is also possible: S. Surovikin will simply withdraw the Russian forces, because “why should the Russian guys die here?”, and then the incoming Ukrainian troops in Kherson will be attacked with cruise missiles and drones. Everything now, according to J. Shvets, will depend on the actions of the Ukrainians themselves and their success.
For the time being, Ukrainian forces have engaged in an information blockade in the Kherson area, which, as the experience of recent months has shown, suggests that a dramatic and violent Ukrainian attack is imminent in several directions.
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