The withdrawal of Russian troops from the right bank of the Dnipro river and from Kherson, which was captured in March, opens up many opportunities for Ukraine, both logistically and militarily. In particular, new strike zones for HIMARS missiles are becoming clear – such as northern Crimea. Military experts spoke to The Insider about the strategic importance of Kherson and the possible further actions of the AFU.
An order by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to withdraw Russian troops to the left bank of the Dnipro river has caused a wary reaction both in Russia and Ukraine. In particular, Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said it was “too early” to talk about a Russian troop withdrawal – according to him, some Russian units remain in Kherson for the time being.
International military experts, however, are more optimistic. In particular, analyst Rob Lee noted that Russian troops have been preparing to withdraw from Kherson for a long time: “This is hardly a trap. For the past few weeks, Russia has been taking steps, preparing to leave the area, and they risk scaring the forward units of the Russian Armed Forces into abandoning them without announcing it,” Lee wrote.
“The AFU will scorch the left bank with HIMARS and artillery.”
In anticipation of the expected Russian withdrawal order, military analyst Def Mon decided to forecast the potential consequences of the retreat for the Russian army and published a map highlighting an area covering 70 km from the Dnipro towards the Sea of Azov. The range of M31 ammunition for the HIMARS system is 85 km. Based on that, we can assume that if the AFU cannot reach Crimea, they will probably reach a section of the railroad at the entrance to the peninsula.
This is confirmed by AFU reserve colonel and military expert Roman Svitan. According to Svitan, if the AFU enters Kherson, the shelling of the northern part of the peninsula will begin. He also recalls that the right bank of the Dnipro, which was abandoned by Russian troops, is higher than the left bank, which gives strategic advantages to the AFU.
“The liberated territory will definitely be shelled by Russian artillery. There is a Coriolis force, due to which the right bank of the Dnieper is higher than the left, that is, the western [part of the river bank] is higher than in the east. The AFU will be on the western bank, which means that any counter-battery fight will be won due to the difference in altitude and the range of Ukrainian artillery. The AFU will simply crush the Russian troops.
You can reach Crimea from Kherson, the HIMARS will definitely bombard it. The HIMARS is a launcher that can carry several types of missiles. There are two main ones: the M31 with a range of 85 km and the ATACMS with a range of 300 km. There is also a third type, the PrSM, with a range of over 500 km. The AFU targets for the near future are logistics chains and facilities associated with the transportation of combat equipment and ammunition. Any military convoy from Crimea will be shelled by the HIMARS at the exit from the peninsula, which means it will come under fire as it leaves Crimea for mainland Ukraine.
Also, the Russian army will try to liberate Kherson from the left bank from the side of the town of Oleshky. If there’s an opportunity for a massive crossing, the AFU will move to the left bank on the shoulders of the Russians and secure a bridgehead and then carry on to Crimea. And if there’s an attack on Crimea, the Russian grouping in Donbas will be forced to pull back. It’ll block the Crimea, and it’ll have to move: go to Taman and further across the Crimean bridge. When the Russian army withdraws from the right bank to the left, the AFU will simply burn it out up to a depth of 80 km with HIMARS and artillery. There are no strategically important points or junctions there, except for a railroad at the exit from Vuhledar to Volnovakha, which feeds the Russian army along the dry land on the Rostov side.”
Meanwhile, independent defense analyst Konrad Muzyka and Michael Kofman, a military expert from the American research organization CNA, say that the Ukrainian Armed Forces won't take such risks with HIMARS systems. According to them, the Ukrainian military hasn’t taken such actions so far.
“A HIMARS fire line set on the river bank (and the frontline) and within the range of Russian artillery is not how the UAF have used their deep strike capability,” writes Konrad Muzyka. However, as Conflict Intelligence Team analysts noted to The Insider, HIMARS systems are hard to detect. “The HIMARS looks like a truck: you have to detect it first, and by the time you detect and transmit data, it's already moved.”
Potential targets for the HIMARS
Military expert Oleh Zhdanov is also confident that the HIMARS will be actively used on the new frontiers due to the systems’ speed and mobility. According to him, the Russian military built a defense line near Chonhar on the Crimean isthmus back in 2015, similar to the Maginot Line [the system of French fortifications on the border with Germany, built before World War II – The Insider], and several reports have revealed that the Russians are apparently building a second and third line.
“These are legitimate targets for Ukrainian artillery. In addition, the Crimean direction is the main communication route, which will be cut at the exit of the AFU on the banks of the Dnipro. This is the main communication up to and including Melitopol – everything will be under Ukrainian fire control.”
Earlier, OSINT analyst Benjamin Pittet reported that preparations for the defense of Crimea in the north appear to have begun as early as October. Pittet analyzed satellite images that recorded the digging of new trenches in northern Crimea near Armiansk and Chonhar – the former location of the checkpoint between Ukraine and occupied Crimea. The images are dated October 5 and 10.
Will the AFU force the Dnipro?
According to Zhdanov, the Ukrainian Armed Forces will try to cross the Dnipro only if they attack from Zaporizhzhia, otherwise there is no sense in crossing the Dnipro – the Ukrainian troops will simply find themselves surrounded on all sides, except for Mykolayiv.
“However, it is quite possible that Ukrainian troops can use the Dnipro as a frontier to shell Russian troops to draw back their efforts from other directions,” says Zhdanov. “All the more so because by reaching the Dnipro, we completely block any logistics routes from Crimea for both the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk directions.”
Military expert Leonid Dmitriev noted that so far it is difficult to predict whether the AFU will attempt to force the Dnipro:
“The important tasks now are to secure the dam of the Kakhovska hydroelectric power plant and ensure nuclear safety – that is, to liberate the Zaporizhzhia NPP. The defensive positions along the river will allow the AFU to strengthen its groupings in other directions. But the probability of bringing in the troops concentrated in the north, in particular the Belarusian grouping, is increasing. There’s interesting and confusing Russian naval activity in the North Sea and on the Baltic near Kaliningrad.”
Western pressure and another Russian “gesture of goodwill”
Zhdanov says the order of Russian authorities to pull back the troops may be a prologue to some kind of agreement. For example, it may be a way for Putin to push Ukraine to negotiations together with Western countries:
“I’ll allow such an idea, but in Ukraine it would cause a social revolt. It's unlikely that [the Ukrainian] leadership will risk it; society is not ready for this. It may well be that Putin is playing a zero-sum game and is waiting for negotiations in exchange for a withdrawal. I think they’ll use the withdrawal from Kherson. We’ll still hear statements from Moscow, I have little doubt about that, that they’ve again made a ‘goodwill gesture’ and now need Ukraine's goodwill to negotiate. The fact is that Putin's army is falling apart before his eyes and he can’t cope in this situation without a cease-fire, and that’s why he’s pushing so hard.”
Ukraine won’t sit at the negotiating table with the Russians, stressed Roman Svitan: “The president, the AFU, and the people have said so. Until the Russian Federation withdraws from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and Donbas, Ukraine won’t negotiate with or without the help of the West. There’s an extremely sharp rejection of even the hint of negotiations. Even if the president starts to speak, he will be blown to hell, and he knows it.”