A city bus, driving unhindered past a military checkpoint in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson on or before Thursday, is a subtle but powerful symbol.
More than eight months after Russia expanded its war against Ukraine, and more than seven months after Russian forces captured Kherson and its strategic Black Sea port, Russian troops appear to be leaving the southern city.
The liberation of Kherson, with its pre-war population of 300,000, could take place soon. The Ukrainian brigades are perhaps ten kilometers away.
As captured on video which traveled online, Kherson city bus approaches a Russian army checkpoint. It looks like the bus is slowing down or stopping normally for a check. But there are no Russian troops at the checkpoint, so the bus continues to roll and the passengers cheer.
The celebration bus ride comes two months after Ukrainian forces launched a counter-offensive aimed at liberating Kherson. The Ukrainian army had spent many weeks preparing. They targeted Russian supply lines, blowing up depots and trains and hitting bridges over the wide Dnipro River that flows just south of Kherson – bridges that trucks and trains use to transport supplies to Kherson from Russian-occupied Crimea or Russia proper.
When the Ukrainian brigades finally attacked in late August, the Russian forces mostly collapsed. The Ukrainians quickly liberated hundreds of square kilometers of Kherson Oblast and moved closer to the city itself.
A few weeks ago it was clear that the exhausted Russian army – having lost up to 100,000 men killed and wounded in Ukraine – could not contain the whole of Kherson Oblast. The main Russian force moved to its main bridgeheads and barge landings and began to redeploy on the left bank of the Dnipro.
Of course, a vacant checkpoint in a town that might have dozens of them is not definitive proof that the town’s occupiers are evacuating completely. But there are many other signs. Russian occupation officials move their headquarters. The Russian flags disappear from the garrison installations. Occupation forces destroy equipment they cannot take with them.
Even more frightening, the Russians are “supervising the evacuation of civilian populations from certain settlements on the east bank of the Dnipro”. according the Institute for the Study of War based in Washington, DC. For the Russians, these civilians might be most useful as human shields in a pitched defense of the left bank of the Dnipro.
The Russians could leave Kherson without a fight, but there is no guarantee that they will. “I’m skeptical [Russia] will give up all positions on that side without being forced out, but could be wrong about that,” Explain Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the CNA think tank.
It should be noted that a covering force, believed to have been reinforced by some of the 300,000 mostly middle-aged and unfit recruits the Kremlin mustered in September and October, began digging in on the right bank of the Dnipro .
These troops could slow the liberation of Kherson, buying time for the bulk of the Russian army to complete its escape across the Dnipro. But the covering force itself might not survive. “Such a detachment must be well-trained, professional, and ready to die for their countrymen,” Institute for the Study of War Noted.
The speed and force with which the Ukrainian army penetrates Kherson could depend on many factors. Weather. Ukrainian logistics. What resistance does the Russian rear guard oppose. And what a risk the Ukrainians are willing to tolerate – for themselves and for Kherson and its people – as they liberate the city.