Russia has retreated from Kherson but the war increasingly looks like a stalemate. Image: Screengrab / Facebook

“In the Kherson direction, today at 5 o’clock in the morning Moscow time, the transfer of units of Russian troops to the left bank of the Dnieper River was completed. No units or military equipment and weapons were left on the right bank. All Russian soldiers crossed to the left bank of the Dnieper,” read the announcement of the Russian Ministry of Defense on Friday, November 11, 2022 – the anniversary of World War I Armistice Day, 1918.

The amount of misinformation and sheer nonsense about the Russian withdrawal from Kherson published since the time of the announcement “wouldn’t fit on a cow’s hide” (geht auf keine Kuhhaut), said a German military intelligence officer based at Grafenwöhr, Bavaria, where Bundeswehr trainers advise Ukrainian soldiers in the use of advanced artillery equipment.

(It’s on parchment made of cowhide that the devil keeps a record of people’s sins qualifying for time in hell or purgatory.)

As has become commonplace, the blödsinn (“utter rubbish”) was mainly purveyed by the Washington, DC–based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), founded and headed by Kimberly Kagan, wife of Frederick Kagan, head of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, brother of neocon guru Robert Kagan, husband of the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria “Tori” Nuland, spiritus rector (“guiding spirit”) of the 2014 Maidan Orange uprising that deposed elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Nuland became notorious for her “F**k the EU” outburst, published from a covert tape recording.

What the ISW may have left out by way of rubbish and propaganda was filled in by Britain’s Ministry of Truth – pardon, Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) – and duly amplified by the echo chamber of the Western press.

The Anglo-American echo chamber predicted 1) a bloodbath, with the mass slaughter of panicked, fleeing Russian soldiers; 2) retaliation for the defeat at Kherson by a Russian electromagnetic pulse (EMP) strike by a low-yield nuclear detonation in space, causing a total blackout and shut down of unprotected electronic devices in the city of Kiev, a fairytale circulated by the ISW; 3) blowing up the Kakhovka dam with thousands of civilian casualties (UK MoD).

An elderly woman walks in the liberated village of Arkhanhelske Kherson Oblast on November 3, 2022. Photo: CNN / Screengrab

The accusation that destroying a dam constituted a war crime was especially ripe coming from London; British forces invented this sort of war on the night of May 16-17, 1943. “Operation Chastise,” the mass bombing attack on six major German dams, destroyed two of the targets and killed 2,400 people.

To date, nothing of the sort has happened – though we won’t rule out that Ukrainian or Russian fire might damage or destroy the dam at Nova Kakhovka in the future.

What has happened, instead, is an orderly retreat of Russian forces from the west bank of the Dnieper River with virtually no reported casualties and no serious effort by Ukrainian forces to exploit the retreat.

Those facts and the resulting new military situation constitute one of two factors that point toward a ceasefire, possibly leading to a formal armistice. US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered his professional judgment to this effect in a November 11 speech to the Economic Club of New York. Milley did not hedge.

“There has to be a mutual recognition that military victory is probably, in the true sense of the word, not achievable through military means, and therefore.… When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it,” he said.

The other factor is the economic situation of Ukraine and its Western European supporters. Ukraine says its economic output is down 35% year on year. That is nowhere near the truth. The country has neither the labor nor the capital to sustain itself at any level.

It is entirely dependent on foreign donations for its ability to conduct the current war and keep its dwindling population fed and clothed. Western Europe, in turn, has reached the limits of coping with the influx of Ukrainian refugees as well as continuing immigrant flows from Africa.

The military situation

On October 8, after the bombing of the strategic Kerch Strait bridge connecting Crimea and Russia’s Taman Peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Army General Sergey Surovikin as the new overall commander of operations of the war. 

Surovikin, 56, has ample combat experience in Afghanistan and Syria. He took his time – one month, to be precise – to assess the military situation. And he made a decision for which he may well be vilified: to withdraw all Russian forces from the right bank of the Dnieper to defensible positions with much shorter interior lines on the left bank, requiring fewer troops to defend.

Any defensive evacuation of substantial numbers of troops (approximately 30,000) with a major river at your back is a high-risk operation. Based on net assessment, Surovikin regarded it as necessary and got it sorted. The map below shows the current alignments and military options of both sides.

A Ukrainian attack across the river would face major problems, including guarding against the possibility of a Kakhovka dam burst and flooding of the lower Kherson regions.

Ukrainian attacks from the areas east of the city of Zaporizhzhia in the direction of Melitopol and further east of Mariupol are possible, but would require significant massing of forces, potentially denuding Ukrainian positions opposite the city of Donetsk. The danger for Ukraine there lies in the possibility of a Russian counterattack in the direction of the city of Pokrovsk near the western border of Donetsk Oblast.

The hardest current fighting is taking place in the Bakhmut-Soledar area. The area around the transportation hub of Bakhmut guards entry to the Popasna-Luhansk corridor. Neither side can afford to abandon these key positions.

Last, further north, the focus is on the parallelogram southeast of Kharkov. But the Ukrainian offensive there is literally stuck in the mud. It is difficult to see how much progress can be made by the Ukrainians, notably because of the closeness of Russian territory.

Bottom line: Surovikin’s move out of Kherson City and points northwest of the city has created a strategic stalemate.

Time is not on Ukraine’s side. Larger-scale efforts to regain more territory than achieved in Kharkov and Kherson would require not only the continued large flow of NATO arms, but a buildup of manpower.

The 15,000-20,000 troops currently being trained in Poland, Germany and Ukraine will not suffice even if they are twice as capable as the Russian reservists being brought in.

General Milley’s assessment was based on this simple body count. Ukraine is no longer a country of 42 million people, but more likely a country of 10 million fewer than that.

American military intelligence assessments assume about equal numbers of Ukrainian and Russian casualties of about 100,000 since the start of the war. That does not bode well for the country with currently just one-fifth of Russia’s population.

Armistice assessment

General Milley’s assessment that neither Ukraine nor Russia can achieve their maximum goals is widely shared by other NATO militaries.

German and French assessments are more pessimistic, assuming that even parity will not last long and that now is the optimal time for Ukraine to start talking.

There can be little doubt that this is what prompted US national security adviser Jake Sullivan to tell Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that, yes, we fully support you, but, hey, maybe start negotiations.

Sullivan reportedly told Zelensky that it would be easier to maintain Western support if it were “perceived as being willing” to engage in diplomacy.

Kriegsmūdigkeit (war-weariness) is strongest in Germany among Ukraine’s NATO backers; 78% of the population want to see negotiations, and a similar number believe Germany has done enough to support Ukraine.

An estimated 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Germany and receive immediate social security, free health care and emergency shelter. The capital city Berlin, which has processed 400,000 refugees, has declared a humanitarian emergency.

Militarily and economically, conditions for a Denkpause, a pause to think things over, are ripe.

As reported on November 14, US Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns – the former US ambassador to Russia who warned about NATO’s eastern expansion – met in Istanbul on Monday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service.

Burns, the story goes, went to Istanbul to warn Naryshkin against the use of nuclear weapons. Really? And Naryshkin complied obediently and went there to talk about that?

There is little doubt that their meeting was a follow-up to the Sullivan’s and Milley’s probes about ending the fighting.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin meet in Ankara, Turkey, on December 11, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Umit Bektas
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in 2017. Photo: Pool

And why Istanbul? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered to play peacemaker.

The US and the wider West are attacking Russia almost without limits,” prompting a natural defensive reaction, Erdogan said on November 12 while returning from a summit of Turkic nations in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. But he also reminded reporters that he had brokered a grain export deal with Ukraine and signaled that he is available to broker a wider deal.

The major caveat regarding an early ceasefire is strictly political. President Putin is under attack from his nationalist right. President Zelensky would have to answer the questions from his own population as to why he would negotiate a truce now when the only outcome will be the status quo ante – before the deaths of tens of thousands, the displacement of millions and the wholesale destruction of the country.

Follow Uwe Parpart on Twitter at @uwe_parpart