Vladimir Putin may have to play a game of waiting and hope the winter months will work in his favor after another humiliating defeat in his invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian president was absent when he left it to his defense minister Sergei Shoigu and military commander Sergei Surovikin to announce Moscow’s withdrawal from the west of the Dnieper near Kherson, the capital of the southern region of the same name.

Distancing himself from the bad news that was circulating on Russian state TV by sombre experts may portend he is blaming the military for his forces’ failures – but he faces some tough decisions in the coming weeks.

Vladimir Putin at the State Kremlin Palace, November 9, 2022 in Moscow. The Russian leader faced another humiliating defeat in Ukraine after his troops withdrew from the west bank of the Dnieper.
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“Putin faces many challenges of what to do in the East and South,” said John Spencer, a retired American major who is president of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum. “Putin has to decide which problem to best satisfy.”

In his opinion, this could focus on the neighboring Zaporozhye and continue att*cks on Ukrainian infrastructure “while it can”, before Ukraine receives more defense systems, such as those provided by the US.

While it was a political and symbolic blow with significant strategic implications, “tactically, the loss of Kherson is not huge,” Spencer told Newsweek. “Russian forces have built up many defenses on the eastern side of the Dnieper.”

He believes Putin probably knew that mobilized troops sent in early would have little impact. The wisdom received is that Putin’s partial mobilization, which should amass at least 300,000 troops, will have little immediate impact due to training and equipment problems.

“He will try to buy time, hoping that the mobilized troops sent to the training will be formed, pushed to the front and sharpen the lines,” Spencer added.

On Friday, Ukrainian armed forces reached the center of Kherson in the wake of reports of Russia’s chaotic withdrawal, in which wounded soldiers were abandoned or taken prisoner.

Russia still has 30,000 troops in the area, according to intelligence and security firm Global Guardian, and will want to avoid a repeat of the disorderly withdrawal from Kharkiv in September.

Russian forces destroyed bridges, set traps and allegedly mined the Nowa Kachowka hydropower plant. It is located below the source of the beginning of the North Crimean Canal (NCC), which supplies fresh water to the Crimea.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned after the withdrawal,” Global Guardian CEO and former Green Beret Dale Buckner told Newsweek, it’s that both Surovikin and Putin are “acting rationally.”

“Russia’s priority now is to regroup and regenerate,” he said. “Now he has less territory to defend and [up to] 200,000 more Russian soldiers who will soon be ready to fight.

“In the meantime, we will probably see a strengthening of the defenses in Zaporizhia as Russia probably fears that this will be the next axis of Ukraine’s progress.”

In what he described as the “wild-card scenario,” he said Putin could adopt a “salt-of-the-earth” strategy in which Russia would blow up a hydroelectric dam at Novaya Kakhovka that flooded the Russian-occupied eastern bank of the Dnieper.

“For that to happen, Russia would have to fear heavy Ukrainian pressure to cross the Dnieper and advance south, which does not seem to be currently planned,” Buckner said. “Russia would also need to drag its assets far enough to prevent further weakening.”

He said meetings between Russian and Iranian officials suggested Putin was relying on receiving short-range ballistic missiles from Tehran to offset shrinking arms supplies to Russia.

Russia used Iran’s Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as “kamikaze drones”, to strike civilian and infrastructure targets.

“Russia has been very successful in its terror campaign and is likely to double what works,” Buckner said. “Russia is likely to intensify its energy war by att*cking Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure.”

“The next next step will be to keep digging,” Buckner added as Putin waits for his time, inflicting maximum economic pain on both Ukrainians and the rest of Europe by using his energy resources as a weapon.

Former British intelligence officer Philip Ingram said Russian defense planning east of the Dnieper has for weeks shown that it is “resetting its defenses” and is using the river’s natural barrier to halt further Ukraine’s progress.

“Russia is an exchange of space over time,” he told Newsweek. “He wants to use this time to integrate new reservists into formations, generate additional maneuverability and buy time to allow bad ground conditions and winter so that the conflict can begin in 2023.”

Members of the Ukrainian artillery unit
Members of the Ukrainian artillery unit are firing towards Kherson on October 28, 2022, outside the Kherson region. Russia withdrew from the west bank of the Dnieper near Kherson, prompting speculation on what Vladimir Putin might do next.
BULENT KILIC / Getty Images

Western officials reportedly said the winter months could spell deadlock and form the basis for negotiations between Moscow and Kiev.

However, the US think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) dismissed this and stated that Ukrainian forces could use “poorly equipped” Russian troops and use the frozen ground to move around more easily than in the fall.

“Time is on Putin’s side if the Ukrainians give it back to him, because then he can replenish his supplies and do something else,” said military consultant Glen Grant from the Baltic Security Foundation, referring to the prospect of ending hostilities.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected claims that the retreat from Kherson was humiliating, telling reporters on Friday that the Kremlin did not regret the ceremony to mark the annexation of the Kherson Oblast along with the Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhia oblasts.

“Putin still has enormous support at home,” Grant told Newsweek, noting that Russian public opinion is not complaining about the morality of the war in Ukraine, but rather the poor performance of the army.

“I don’t think a nuclear option can be ruled out, but America has made it very clear [to Putin]”This is a losing battle option for you.”

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