By Gwynne Dyer
The recovery of the city of Kherson is the third big victory for the Ukrainian armed forces in three months: first, the reconquest of all of Kharkiv province in September, then the partial destruction of the Kerch Strait bridge linking Crimea with Russia in October, and now the liberation of Kherson. So where next?
The decisive factor in shaping this war has been the relatively small numbers of troops engaged. When the Nazi and Soviet armies were waging their titanic battles back and forth across Ukraine in 1941-43, there were several million soldiers fighting on each side, with tanks, planes and artillery to match.
Once a breakthrough occurred, in those conditions, the front could move hundreds of kilometres before it settled down again. Many cities changed hands not once or twice but four times. But now the armies have got small again.
The Russians invaded last February with fewer than 200,000 men. Even now, after considerable reinforcements but also large losses, their army in Ukraine is 250,000 at most. Ukraine’s army has grown at least as fast, and probably now has about the same number at the front.
The problem is that the ‘front’, the line of contact between Ukrainian and Russian troops, is about one thousand kilometres long. Each side therefore has an average of only 250 soldiers per kilometre, or one for every four metres.
In reality, more than half these soldiers will be behind the front manning artillery, driving trucks with supplies, staffing field hospitals and so on, so the men at the actual line of contact are spread out to around one every ten metres.
This determines the way the current war is fought. The front is manned so sparsely that it is fairly easy to get a breakthrough – but the attacking forces are also much smaller, so they can only hope to hold the new ground they have gained if they stop their advance fairly soon.
In their northern offensive in September, the Ukrainians quickly advanced about 75 km. on a broad front – and then they stopped, although the Russian troops in front of them were still fleeing. They were spreading themselves too thin, and making themselves too vulnerable to a Russian counter-attack.
They are cautious and methodical, and they will continue to take regular modest bites out of the Russian positions. No drama, but steady advances.
So where will they attack next? Certainly not from newly liberated Kherson: it would cost too many lives to cross the Dnipro river under fire. In the east, the Donbas bristles with field fortifications, and an offensive there would also be a slow and painful business.
Ukraine’s next step will almost certainly be an advance from the region of Zaporizhzhiye south to the Black Sea coast. That would leave all the Russian forces in what’s left of Kherson province and Crimea totally dependent on supplies coming across the badly damaged Kerch Strait Bridge from Russia.
Starve them out, and Ukraine will have recaptured almost all of its pre-February territory. That’s the point at which negotiations would finally become possible. Many different peace deals would then be available.
If the Russian army has actually collapsed, then the borders all go back to the pre-2014 map. If it’s still standing, then maybe Ukraine gives up the Donbas in return for recovering Crimea, or the other way around, or perhaps it has to accept merely a return to the pre-February 2022 status quo.
The course of the fighting will decide which option actually materialises.