War’s most dangerous operation, ‘withdrawal in contact,’ offers Ukraine forces a chance for slaughter on a mass scale
News that Russian forces will retreat from Kherson has electrified Ukraine’s supporters but is likely giving Moscow’s commanders grey hairs:The operation they must conduct to free their troops is fraught with risk.
“Withdrawal while in contact with the enemy” is widely considered by military professionals to be the most difficult operation in war. It requires detailed planning, lock-step coordination, iron nerves and considerable luck.
Making matters doubly difficult for the besieged Russian force in Kherson is that they are not simply pulling back to a new position to their rear. Before reaching safety, they must traverse the broad expanse of the lower Dnieper River. Its crossing points are in the crosshairs of Ukrainian artillery.
This combination of factors suggests that the withdrawal – if unhinged – could turn into a slaughter. Alternatively, Ukrainian troops who have been breaking their teeth on Russian defenses for weeks may be content to let their enemy slip away – particularly if that want to obviate close combat in the streets of the city itself.
If Kherson is retaken by Ukraine, it will mark yet another turning point in the war. Many have commented on the move in terms of prestige, politics and strategy.
In terms of prestige: Kherson, a regional capital, is the most important city Russian forces have taken in the war, and Russia has sought to annex the surrounding oblast.
Its abandonment would be yet another humiliation heaped upon a force that went down to defeat outside Kiev and Kharkiv, ground to a halt in the Donbas and found its navy forced onto the defensive.
In terms of politics: Kherson’s role as the control point for fresh water supply to Russia-annexed Crimea is critical.
In terms of strategy, the abandonment of the only Russian bridgehead of the left/west bank of the Dniepr means the Kremlin’s dream of carving a “Novorussia” coastal corridor from Rostov to Transnistria, removing Kiev’s access to the sea, is de facto dead in the water.
But as is so often the case in this war, what is being overlooked in the reporting are the immediate tactical issues, which are towering. And there are still other matters.
The decision to withdraw, apparently made by Russia’s formidable theater commander-in-chief, suggests the belated empowerment of the generals. At a time when the Russian Army is coming under vocal attack from militant hardliners and ultranationalists for its failings, that speaks volumes.
More speculatively, there exists the possibility that the Russian withdrawal from what Kiev has long claimed as a key objective may be part of some kind of deal with the United States.
The perils of retreat
No armies like to practice retreats; they are devilishly difficult to command and control. The basic concept is to “always keep one foot on the ground:” One unit pulls backward and goes firm, providing cover for the next unit as it too withdraws.
It’s a tricky sequence. If the enemy interrupts the move, the unit in motion faces being overrun in the open. If panic sets in and the standing unit – fearing being outflanked and cut off – moves, the enemy has a chance to cause massive casualties.
Thus far, Russian troops have excelled at grinding, firepower-heavy attacks on Mariupol and Donbas. They have not been impressive in maneuver operations, however. The level of coordination required for a synchronized withdrawal may challenge their degraded capabilities.
Making Kherson more difficult for the Russian command is that there is no single line of withdrawal. Defense lines around the city are roughly semi-circular, necessitating a concentric series of backward bounds with multiple units collapsing backward onto rear units.
If just one part of the front is punctured during this serial movement, or if major gaps open up due to de-control of either timing or spacing, the Ukrainians will have the opportunity to dislocate the entire operation.
That is where the greatest peril lies. History – even modern history – is replete with cases of retreating forces being shattered while trying to escape the battlespace.
The bloodiest disaster suffered by the US Army since World War II took place in North Korea in the winter of 1950 when two regiments of the US 2nd Infantry Division were decimated as they drove headlong – without covering the high ground or posting flank guards – through the Kunu-ri Pass (“The Gauntlet”). The pass was dominated by Chinese machine guns and mortars, which ripped through the vehicle-bound Americans.
The “Highway of Death” in Kuwait was the name given to a notorious line of retreat used by thousands of Iraqi troops and occupiers in 1991.
As defeated and overawed Iraqis withdrew pell-mell, with no thought for flank security, air cover or even tactical movement, thousands were slaughtered and a miles-long stretch of highway was littered with burned-out, blown-up vehicles and charred corpses.
Mud, blood and water
Adding to the Russian challenge in Kherson are two factors. One: The muddy season is well underway. Two: To reach safety, Russian troops have to cross to the east bank of the Dnieper.
When Ukraine’s rich soil turns to mud, any vehicles without tracks are unable to maneuver off-road. This is why the two seasons of the rasputitsa (“the time without roads”) – spring and autumn – are customarily the time, in Russian warfare, for operational pauses.
Conversely, the classic campaign seasons are summer and winter, when, respectively, long days and ground frosts ease maneuver. Russian road withdrawals will be fraught, for Ukraine’s artillery and drone crews know the layout of the road net in the battlespace.
The presence of the Dnieper is another massive challenge. The Ukrainians have already demonstrated their ability to hit the river’s crossing points with their long-range, precision artillery. Russian units will be dangerously vulnerable while concentrating on the river bank and withdrawing across it via semi-ruined bridges and/or pontoon ferries.
This does not mean a river crossing under enemy pressure is impossible. Russia’s generals should be especially familiar with two such operations.
In November 1812, thanks to successful diversionary operations and extraordinary work by Napoleon Bonaparte’s engineers, the bulk of the Grand Armee managed to retreat across the River Berezina on two pontoon bridges.
Even so, a rearguard corps was wiped out, the army was forced to abandon some 10,000 persons on the far bank, and panic and carnage ensued when the Russians broke through and brought the pontoons under direct fire.
Subsequently, the term “Berezina” became a French synonym for disaster.
In September 1943, retreating Germans forces under Hitler’s greatest general, Erich Von Manstein, beat their Russian pursuers in a race to the Dnieper, crossing westward over the river with the bulk of their forces and blowing the bridges.
But the Germans left scorched earth in their rear and sacrificed rearguards, which fought to buy time for the main force to cross. Subsequently, the line of the Dnieper proved indefensible: Russian infiltration units were able to cross at night, establish bridgeheads and reinforce.
The Germans, forced back from the Dnieper, resumed the long, westward retreat that would only conclude in the rubble of Berlin in April 1945.
So the stakes are high. But the Kremlin may have found the man for the job.