Fall of Kherson might be the beginning of fall of Crimea

Commentary

Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist
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In a major strategic defeat, Russian authorities ordered troops to withdraw from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, essentially cutting off a “land bridge” connecting Russian forces to the Crimean peninsula. Without this crucial supply line, Russia will not be able to get food, water or energy to the region. As Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan explains, it’s a strategic win for Ukraine, but by no means is the end in sight.

Excerpted from Peter’s Nov. 14 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Over the weekend, the Ukrainians recaptured the city of Kherson from the Russians. A huge strategic win for Ukraine and only the first of many humiliating retreats & defeats that the Russians will soon face.

If there was one thing Russia’s military complex needed, it was rail-support. Take that away and ~poof~ say bye-bye to Russia’s supply chain – other than school buses and Scooby-Doo vans.

So what does that mean? The remainder of Russia’s forward operations will face similar fates – if not worse.

This is Ukraine’s first major opportunity to whittle away at Russian controlled territories at scale, and while the coming days, weeks and months will be pivotal for the Ukrainians, it is nowhere near the end of this war.

Hey everyone, Peter Zeihan here coming to you from San Antonio. It’s the afternoon of November 13. You’re going to be seeing this the morning of the 14th. 

And over the last few days, the Kherson offensive in the Ukraine war has concluded. The Ukrainians have recaptured the city from the Russians. They’re in the process of going through and back-sweeping the area to get any soldiers that were left behind, of which apparently, there were thousands. 

And it’s going to be quite some time before they can do an inventory on the equipment that they’ve captured. But it does look to be substantial.

Now, the reason that the Russians withdrew from Kherson, is because they couldn’t supply the troops on the west side of the river. Ever since the Kerch bridge went offline a couple of months ago, the Russians have been forced to run everything by truck. It used to be that it was all rail and that’s how the Russian army fights. But without that rail connection through Kherson, everything had to make a long run on trucks. And that’s about 1/500th as efficient in a war zone for the Russians. So they’re just not coping well. 

The problem that the Russians will now face is that everything that was true for Kherson, as far as logistics, is also true for the entirety of the southern front and the entirety of the Crimean peninsula. 

The smart play today would be for the Russians to do a wide-ranging full retreat from all of the territory west of Mariupol and west of Kerch, that includes all of Zaporizhzhia province, all of Kherson province, all of the Crimea. And if they don’t do that, they are looking at a catastrophic defeat over the course of the next several months. So to understand how that’s going to break down, let’s take a look at some maps. 

All right, what we’re looking at here is a map of the southern front, specifically here is Kherson and Nova Kakovka. Now, everything north of that river, that’s the Dnipro River, roughly analogous to the American Mississippi, everything north of that river was captured by the Ukrainians over the course of the last few days.

The two bridges that those arrows are pointing at specifically have been disabled, spans are down so proper repairs would take months. There’s still the possibility that the Ukrainians could theoretically cross them with pontoons. But that would be going directly into the teeth of the Russians and then the Ukrainians would have some echo of the same logistical problems that the Russians are having. So I don’t think we’re going to be seeing assault there.

Down here we have the Kerch Straight Bridge. That’s what all the fuss has been about for so long. That is the only rail connection between Russia proper and the entirety of the southern front including the totality of the Crimean peninsula. There is a light rail line that goes to the north, but it has been interdicted by the Ukrainians for months, so the Russians wisely have not been using it. So everything needs to go by truck. 

Now at the moment, a lot of the truck traffic that used to be on rail is going all the way around the Sea of Azov. Let me bring up a little. 

This is the Sea of Azov here. And so it’s been a long trip that in order to get to Northern Crimea, it’s about twice to three times the distance, costs about 100 times as much in terms of fuel, and ultimately can’t transport nearly as much cargo.

There are only three ways into Crimea. The first one is the Kerch Straight Bridge. The other two are here. Now the one on the eastern side has a bridge, and so expect the Ukrainians to be targeting that shortly. The one on the left, on the West, is a narrow isthmus about five miles wide. That’s the more stable of the two. But it is well well well within the range of Ukrainian middle-range missiles. And now that the Ukrainians are all the way up on Dnipro River

So with the fall, Kherson, both are now fully in range. The only other option would be sea shipments. The only good port is Sevastopol, which is right here. But the Ukrainians have already proven without Kherson that they can get its ships there with maritime drones on long-range missiles. And so the ships basically are not coming in at all: military, civilian or otherwise. It’s basically a dead port.

Okay, so where does that leave us? This is all logistical denial. This is all collectively Part one of what the Russians are going to be suffering from. Part two is partisan attacks. You guys may remember that early in the war, the Javelin missiles were all that. In most cases, the Javelins were not targeting tanks, they were targeting trucks, and the Russians lost over two-thirds of their tactical military truck support fleet. Now the Russian military, since they’re mostly out of trucks, they’ve been taking city buses and Scooby Doo vans and putting them into the front to transport troops and gear and fuel and, oh my god, artillery shells. 

And you don’t need javelins to take out civilian vehicles, like small arms fire works just fine. Now there has been a partisan campaign right here on Melitopol ever since the second month of the war. And that is now the primary supply line for the Russians to get stuff into Crimea and to the southern front. 

So the most vulnerable vehicles that the Russians have are now what they’re completely dependent upon, and they’re going through the teeth of the largest partisan resistance of the war just yet. 

The day after Ukrainian forces into Kherson, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry released a video of Ukrainian special forces crossing the Dnipro. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be all that much of an operational pause. 

Collectively, this is more than enough to collapse the Russian position even without a regular ground thrust because this cuts in all food, all supplies, in and out of the entirety of the southern front of Crimea. But there is going to be a grand thrust.

Okay, so the ground thrust, what we’re looking at here is southern Ukraine in all its glory, that orange line is the very, very, very, very approximate line of control. I’m not a graphic artist, sue me. Here are our three bridges Kerch, Kakhovka and Kherson.

Now, the Ukrainians will be launching a ground assault, but they’re not going to do it from Kherson proper. Not only are the bridges out, but they’d then be facing the same logistic problems that the Russians did in trying to supply across a narrow choke point. They’d also have to deploy into the teeth of Russian forces that are on the south side of the river. That wouldn’t be very smart. So instead, what they’re going to do is launch from Dnipro, and Dnipro is another river city further up, but there are half a dozen bridges that cross the confluence there. That’s where the Nieper and Samar rivers come together and the Russians are nowhere to be found. So they can deploy on multiple axes and multiple points in multiple timeframes without having to worry about getting shelled because they’re at some sort of a bottleneck. 

And then they can proceed south and attack anywhere in this box. Remember, all the trucks transporting stuff that used to be on a rail line, are now being trucked through this box. Now, if I were king for a day, and it was up to me where the assault was going to happen, I would probably go after Melitopol, because Melitopol is, well, it’s kind of isolated, you see this little indentation from the Sea of Azov, that means it’s kind of at the end of a spike. And it’s really easy to go after. But Mariupol is a perfectly viable target, not only is it highly symbolic now since it held out against the Russians for so long, but it is now the primary logistical supply point for all of those many trucks. But wherever they punch south, the point is they’ve got options now and they go wherever the tactical disposition of forces makes sense. And everything to the west of that point is completely cut off. 

So one of two things is going to happen here. Either the Russians are going to read the map, and engage in the most humiliating withdrawal in Russian history or they’re gonna stand pat, and suffer one of the most humiliating military defeats in Russian history. There is no way out of this chapter of the war that looks good for the Russians. 

If the Russians can’t bring in food and fuel and troops through those three bridges, well,

Crimea is gonna have to make its own and it can’t. Sure, the population is about 3 million, but that’s not enough to support a large-scale military operation. Crimea has no oil. Crimea has no refineries. They can’t bring anything in by ship because the shipping lanes have been interdicted by Ukrainian maritime drones and long-range missiles. So the Russians have no more ships at the port in Sebastopol. And they’re not even patrolling the waters off of them. They’re basically evacuated completely from the western half of the Black Sea. 

All that’s left is for Crimea to grow its own food. But to do that, they need something called the Crimean Canal, which sources its water from a sluice gate in Kherson province, right across from Nova Kurkova, which is where the Ukrainian army now is. So that canal is not going to be turned on again come spring and that means that 80% of the food that Crimea used to produce for itself is now gone and with Kerch offline it can’t be brought in. So we are looking at a sprawling 1980s style, Ethiopia-style famine that is going to utterly destroy any hope the Russians have of having any sort of functional military position anywhere in the peninsula or the southern front. If they don’t get out now, they are looking at a catastrophically, mind-numbing retreat.

But even with all that, it doesn’t mean that the war is over. The Russian occupation of the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk suffer from none of these problems. They can be supported directly from the Russian mainland, and directly by rail, and Ukraine is gonna have to boot them out the old-fashioned way. All this means is we are now at the beginning of the end of what is the easy part of the war for the Ukrainians.

Okay, that’s it for me. Until next time.

 


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