By: Clare He

Source: Serhii Korovayny for The Wall Street Journal 

On Wednesday November 9, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered a retreat from the Ukrainian city of Kherson. This was the first major retreat since its escalation in February earlier this year, marking a historic victory for Ukraine. This sudden withdrawal underscores a series of losses for Russia in the past months. Representing its largest defeat since a failed attempt to seize Kyiv, Kherson is yet another setback Moscow has faced amidst its other battlefield losses. Quickly and quietly, Russian forces made a full exit from the region by Friday. 

But Russia’s retreat is no reason to celebrate. Kherson is only one of four regions that have been illegally annexed by Russia.  As this city is  merely a fraction of the larger invasion, I can’t help but remain skeptical of the intentions behind this unexpected move. Only six weeks prior, Putin held a high-profile ceremony to announce the annexation of these regions. To suffer a humiliation this quickly makes Putin’s actions laughable. But from what we have witnessed in the past, it is not in his nature to simply back down, so Kherson could simply be a short-term sacrifice for long-term gains. After all, one must be willing to lose a battle to win the war.

Is a victory so easily won, a victory at all? From public information, we have only been capable of inferring the intent of Russia’s actions. Currently, any reasoning for this withdrawal has been in the form of loose theories or simply omitted from reports. While it does follow a string of complications, Russia’s retreat from Kherson makes its previous issues miniscule in comparison. So, why suddenly sustain such a significant loss? Is it really a culmination of the smaller challenges Russia has been facing so far, or does this retreat fit into a larger wartime strategy? 

Ukrainian officials have also cast doubt on the Russian ‘defeat’  by urgently cautioning residents amidst euphoric celebrations in Kherson. As Ukrainian troops paraded the city, swarms of jubilant citizens lined the streets cheering and crying tears of happiness. “Our morale is sky-high. We know why we are fighting. This is our land,” 28-year-old soldier Serhii said, following the retreat. Many Ukrainian citizens echo Serhii’s remarks; the retreat acts as a beacon of hope in bleak and frightening circumstances. However, lingering worries of leftover Russian intelligence continue to threaten the safety of Kherson. In President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the nation, he said, “Our emotions must be restrained. The enemy does not bring us gifts.” 

The threat of an encroaching winter is yet another reason Ukrainians should remain vigilant and alert in the thick of celebrations. The fight for dwindling supplies and resources has resulted in Ukraine and Russian forces burning down bridges to prevent the transport of goods to enemy troops. Russia has already started targeting power plants, leaving four million Ukranians without heat and electricity. Once the blistering cold blankets Eastern Europe, I believe there will be even more at stake. For Ukraine to prevail, preparation for the oncoming season and the trials it poses will be crucial to sustaining their position following recent triumph. 

Only time will tell how the Kherson retreat impacts the overall war effort. Although we are often focused solely on military strategy, the cost of every win is paid in blood. The millions of people that have been impacted by the Russian invasion on Ukraine continue to show us that amongst the joy, the pain, the wins, the losses, real people remain at the centre of every conflict. So to answer the question: Is a victory so easily won a victory at all? Yes, but joy must not blind us from seeing reality for what it is; Ukraine still has a long and harrowing way to go. However, the liberation of Kherson has given the free world hope…and hope is an unwavering weapon.

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