Picture this: You’re a Russian soldier, stuck in Kherson, waiting for a Ukrainian assault. Your supply route across the Dnipro River has been cut off by rocket attacks. Your ammunition dumps keep getting blown up. And you’ve watched thousands of your colleagues flee the battleground after a stunning Ukrainian offensive in the northeast of the country.
You could stay and fight—but why risk your life for a war that’s not even officially a war? Or you could take President Volodymyr Zelensky at his word when he promises that all Russian soldiers who surrender will be treated with respect, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
A Ukrainian Armed Forces spokeswoman, Natalia Humeniuk, reported Monday that a number of “separate” Russian units around the southern city of Kherson had begun suing for peace and were “trying to negotiate with the Ukrainians on surrender and transfer under the auspices of international law.”
With morale seemingly at rock-bottom in Vladimir Putin’s exhausted, hollowed-out army, her claim was entirely credible. The question is how many Russian troops in the Kherson pocket might follow suit and what happens to Putin’s war if his forces in Kherson melt away or give up like those in Kharkiv and the Donetsk region. Could the experts who predicted a long and grinding war over the coming winter, and beyond, be proven wrong?
The Kharkiv offensive, which has seen Ukrainian forces recapture thousands of square kilometers of territory in just a few days, has been a stunning success. Ukrainian forces are said to have reclaimed a further 20 settlements on Monday as Russian forces desert ever greater swaths of occupied land and flee back across the border. Soon Ukraine, whose forces have already reached the Russian border at some points, will be threatening areas held by Russia since Putin’s first invasion of the Donbas in 2014.
Once again, as when they foiled the original advance on Kyiv in February and March, Ukrainian commanders have made fools of the Russians. The Guardian newspaper reported over the weekend on how the long-rumored Kherson offensive, and the way it was repeatedly foreshadowed by Ukrainian officials, had been a “big special disinformation operation” designed to lure the Russians into reinforcing positions around Kherson. Once that had happened, Ukraine unleashed its newly acquired HIMARs rockets on the bridges across the Dnipro, cutting off the Kherson grouping from reinforcements and supplies.
That Kherson would be top of the list for a counteroffensive was entirely believable. It is the biggest city and only provincial capital captured by the Russians in six months of war. For the Russians, it was the gateway to the port of Odessa, the city the Russians most craved. For the Ukrainians, control of Kherson would open the path to Crimea.
Ukraine’s Southern Command confirmed the start of the Kherson offensive on Aug. 29, but urged people not to report on or speculate about its progress for reasons of “operational security.” For the first time, journalists were banned from the front lines.
But while the Kherson offensive was not quite a complete “feint”—fighting did pick up pace—the real action was about to unfold hundreds of kilometers away, where a well-armed, well-trained Ukrainian force launched a surprise assault on poorly defended Russian lines, capturing key strategic towns such as Balakliya, Kupiansk, and Izium over the space of a few days. Hundreds of Russians were killed and thousands reportedly captured in the assault.
The Washington Post reported Monday on how Russian forces were stealing cars and bicycles to make their escape, after having first stolen civilian clothes to fool Ukrainian drone squads.
“They just dropped rifles on the ground,” said Olena Matvienko, in Zaliznychnye, a village outside Kharkiv captured by the Russians in the opening days of the war but from which they fled in panic after the Ukrainian offensive.
“They came into our houses to take clothes so the drones wouldn’t see them in uniforms. They took our bicycles. Two of them pointed guns at my ex-husband until he handed them his car keys,” Matvienko said.
The Russian collapse has thrown Putin’s TV propagandists and warmongers into chaos, uncertain who should take the blame, and Putin himself refuses to acknowledge the crisis.
“The special military operation continues and will continue until the objectives that were originally set are achieve,” his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Monday.