After Kherson, what’s the end-game?
Over the Summer, a British defence minister is said to have told colleagues: “Ukraine needs to score a goal before half time”. The comment drew criticism not just for the crassness of the footballing metaphor, but because — as some defence insiders put it — “we are nowhere near half time”.
Since then, however, Ukraine has achieved numerous successes: the September counter-offensive that cleared Kharkiv oblast; the 8 October attack on the Kerch Strait bridge; the 29 October USV attack that forced Russia’s Black Sea Fleet into a defensive posture at Sevastopol, and — yesterday — the lightning seizure of Kherson, together with the whole right bank of the Dnepr.
The choreographed nature of the Russian withdrawal, the lack of apparent offensive pressure on the retreating forces by Ukraine, and a flurry of recent diplomatic activity all suggest that both Ukraine’s allies and Moscow itself may be looking for an excuse to pause and “freeze” the conflict.
What follows is partly conjectural, and partly based on discussions with official/expert sources. All the judgements are mine alone, and obviously open to contestation…
What is Putin trying to achieve?
Strategically, Putin still thinks he can achieve his goals: dismembering Ukraine, forcing it to accept neutrality, establishing naval dominance in the Black Sea and splitting the West, through the ultimate hammer blow of a Trump (or Trump-like) presidency that shatters NATO.
That is the significance of his Valdai speech, heralding a new multipolar world order in which the West is destined to collapse and powerless to reimpose a rules-based order.
Operationally, however, the Russian military looks exhausted, even despite the mobilisation announced on 21 September.
The Russian army is, in addition, becoming politicised, with Wagner Group staging fake “revolts” of mobiks to strengthen Prigozhin’s arm in the factional struggle in Moscow, while real organic revolts develop, such as the reported complaint by 155th Naval Infantry about being sent to the slaughter in Makiivka.