Putin Buying Time as He Scrambles to Marshal Russian Defenses

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

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

Distancing himself from the bad news pored over by gloomy pundits on Russian state television could presage his blaming the military for his forces' failings—but he faces some tough decisions in the coming weeks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin at the State Kremlin Palace, November 9, 2022, in Moscow. The Russian leader has faced another humiliating setback in Ukraine after the withdrawal of his troops from the west bank of the Dnieper River. Getty Images

"Putin faces many challenges, what to do in the east and in the south," said John Spencer, a retired U.S. major, who is chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum. "Putin must decide which problem to resource the most."

In his view, this could be focusing on neighboring Zaporizhzhia, and continuing his attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure "while he can," before Ukraine gets more defense systems, such as those supplied by the U.S.

Although it was a political and symbolic blow with significant strategic implications, "tactically, the loss of Kherson isn't huge," Spencer told Newsweek. "Russian forces have established multiple defensive lines on the east side of the Dnieper."

He believes that Putin probably knew that mobilized troops sent forward at first would have had little impact. The received wisdom is that Putin's partial mobilization, which should garner at least 300,000 troops, will have little immediate impact because of problems with training and equipment.

"He will try to buy time, hoping the mobilized troops sent to training can get formed, pushed to the front and harden the lines," added Spencer.

On Friday, Ukraine's armed forces were reported to have reached the center of Kherson city amid reports of a chaotic withdrawal by Russia in which wounded soldiers were abandoned or taken prisoner.

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

Russian forces have destroyed bridges, laid traps, and allegedly mined the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant. That lies downstream of the source of the start of the North Crimean Canal (NCC), which takes fresh water to Crimea.

"If there is one thing we've learned from 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. "It now has less territory to defend and [up to] 200,000 more Russian troops that will soon be ready to enter the fray.

"So in the meantime, we are likely to see a bolstering of defensive positions in Zaporizhzhia as Russia probably fears that it will be Ukraine's next axis of advance."

In what he described as a "wild card scenario," Buckner said Putin could embark on a "salt the earth" strategy, in which Russia blows the hydroelectric dam at Nova Kakhovka, which would flood the Russian-occupied east bank of the Dnieper.

"For this to happen, Russia would have to fear a major Ukrainian push to cross the Dnieper and push south which doesn't appear to be in the cards at present," Buckner said. "Russia would also need to pull its assets far enough away to prevent further force weakening."

He said that meetings between Russian and Iranian officials suggested that Putin is relying on getting short-range ballistic missiles from Tehran to offset Russia's dwindling weapons supply.

Russia has used Iranian made Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as "kamikaze drones" to hit civilian and infrastructure targets.

"Russia is having plenty of success in its campaign of terror and it will likely double down on what is working," said Buckner. "Russia is likely to step up its energy warfare with attacks on Ukrainian civil infrastructure."

"Another next step will be to continue digging in," Buckner added, as Putin bides his time while inflicting maximum economic pain on both Ukrainians and of the rest of Europe, using its energy resources as a weapon.

Former British intelligence officer Philip Ingram said that Russia's defense planning east of the Dnieper for weeks had showed that it was "resetting its defensive line" and using the natural barrier of the river to stop further Ukrainian advances.

"Russia is trading space for time," he told Newsweek. "That time it wants to use to integrate the new reservists into formations, generate additional maneuver capability and buy time to allow the poor ground conditions and winter to let the conflict eek into 2023."

Ukrainian artillery unit members
Ukrainian artillery unit members fire towards Kherson on October 28, 2022, outside of Kherson region. Russia has withdrawn from the west bank of the Dnieper River near Kherson, prompting speculation over what Vladimir Putin might do next. BULENT KILIC/Getty Images

Western officials have reportedly said that the winter months could mean a stalemate and provide the ground for negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv.

However, the U.S. think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) dismissed this and said that Ukrainian forces could take advantage of "poorly-equipped" Russian troops and use the frozen terrain to move more easily than in the autumn.

"Time is on Putin's side if Ukrainians give it to him because then he can restock and do something else," said military consultant Glen Grant from the Baltic Security Foundation, referring to the prospect of hostilities ceasing.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected claims that the retreat from Kherson was humiliating, telling reporters on Friday that the Kremlin didn't regret holding a ceremony marking the annexation of the Kherson region, along with the oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia.

"Putin has still got huge support in the country," Grant told Newsweek, noting that the Russian public is not complaining about the morality of the war in Ukraine, but rather about the poor performance of the army.

"I don't think the nuclear option can be ruled out but America has made it very clear [to Putin], 'this is a battle losing option for you.'"