By Grant W. Turner
On November 9, Moscow announced an apparent withdrawal of its forces from the western bank of the Kherson region in Ukraine. However, given Russia’s steady troop rotations (including large numbers still in Kherson City), buildup of artillery on both sides of the Dnipro River (especially opposite Kherson City), layered lines of defense, presence of relatively elite soldiers, the region’s strategic importance, its previous vow not to cede the territory, the forced evacuations of civilians, and reports from the Ukrainian underground that Russian soldiers are posing as civilians in the region to wage guerrilla warfare, Kyiv’s commanders are concerned Russia is luring them into a trap. Even the widely admired on-the-ground Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov, who believed the withdrawal to be real, said it would take around a week for the invaders to leave.
However, by early November 11, videos began emerging of Ukrainian forces in Kherson City’s center, being greeted as heroes, and of the completely disabled Antonovsky Bridge. In tandem, the Russian Ministry of Defense declared it had successfully withdrawn around 30,000 soldiers, all military equipment, and around 115,000 civilians from Kherson, a dubious claim, according to Ukrainian and Western military experts. Will this simply be a relatively happy ending for Ukraine? Perhaps, but the threat is far from over.
How might a trap look? Some common theories involve luring the Ukrainians into range of an artillery-driven massacre or into Kherson City, where Russian forces either await or will surround them. With the apparent withdrawal, an artillery barrage seems most likely—with dense citizen celebrations being prime targets. In either case, it would seem that the Russians intend on turning Kherson into Mariupol (or Stalingrad), certainly regardless of whether they incur massive losses from friendly fire (according to a pro-Russian separatist commander, 60 percent of Russian casualties in Mariupol were due to fratricide).
Largely unmentioned is another possibility: Russian soldiers are waiting in Kherson City and elsewhere in the area pretending to be the now largely evacuated civilians so that when the Ukrainians approach, there appears to be widespread civilian resistance in favor of Russian annexation. Admittedly, such a scenario seems farfetched, and it is more likely that Russia is evacuating its soldiers so it can regroup and bombard its enemy across the Dnipro. However, in addition to the pre-retreat reports of Russian soldiers disguising themselves as civilians for the purposes of guerilla warfare and efforts as late as November 14 to round up “soldiers hiding in the area, saboteurs, and Russian collaborators,” there are several reasons why such a strategy makes sense.
Since the 2022 invasion began, Russia has struggled to legitimize its actions and annexation in the eyes of the world. Its recent losses have also undermined stability and trust amongst soldiers, those remaining at home (see also), and even elites. The apparent or potential loss of the western bank of Kherson is complicated for Putin because, aside from its geostrategic importance, it represents a choice between another crushing defeat or heavy causalities to achieve a goal with little chance of success. Even Russian propagandists find themselves frozen between going to jail for praising the withdrawal and going to jail for criticizing it. In either case, the Ukrainian soldiers and resistance movements are encouraged, the Russian soldiers are further demoralized, and the Russian people are even more outraged.
Regardless of their combat efficacy, Putin requires his “little green men” again. Consequently, he needs it to look like there is a mass uprising of civilians eager to defend their new Russian “citizenship” as established by the annexation. Viewed by domestic, and potentially some global, audiences as noble “freedom fighters,” Putin’s soldiers could indeed make it seem like they are fighting their own Stalingrad, fighting for those desperately in need of rescue from merciless Ukrainians by Moscow’s uniformed soldiers.
The Russian leadership may be naïve enough to believe the Ukrainians could fall for a more conventional military trap. They may also need to retreat, slowing down Kyiv’s forces via mines, artillery, and geography, while saving face by proclaiming it a wise, strategic decision enabling them to return stronger, as they have already begun spinning it. However, now, one of the Kremlin’s greatest threats is optics.
The mistreatment of its mobilized soldiers under callous, sloppy leadership is causing problems. There have also been questions about why those in the annexed territories have yet to do more to join and stay in the Russian Federation or why so few fled if 87.05% voted in favor of the annexation. If executed properly, this trap scenario can make it seem like the current commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine, General Surovikin, is a wise general who cares both about his men and a strategic approach to victory. Meanwhile, it also sets up a narrative of heroism that the Russian people can concretely “see” and rally behind. The adoption of such a plan could be why Surovikin’s withdrawal announcement has not caused him to immediately fall prey to the Kremlin infighting the way others have and why Putin endorsed the decision to evacuate civilians only a few days before; it is all part of a plan. Given Russia’s history of warfare in Ukraine and more broadly, we cannot rule out such a scenario.
Whether part of a coherent strategy or not, the domestic blowback is already ensuing. One glaring example was a recent series of since-deleted social media posts apparently posted by the infamous Russian historian and ideologue Aleksandr Dugin. He, in part, championed the revival of the Tsarist-era concept of Novorossiya, which President Putin has been applying to his neighbors. Deeply angered by the Kherson retreat, Dugin used historical and literary allusions as a thinly veiled call for Putin’s removal and execution should such failures continue (see one, two, and three); this in a nation that outlawed “disrespecting” the government in 2019, and passed more extreme versions of the ban since 2022. Unless Moscow finds a way to spin this, all the speculations regarding coups and mass revolts may come into being, but if it does, expect the war effort to intensify instead of collapse, as hawks and a humiliated military will likely ascend to power.
Grant W. Turner has been published by RUSI, Global Policy Journal’s Blog, Stealth War, Realist Review, and Plot Politics. Grant is currently interning at The Jamestown Foundation while pursuing a second master’s degree, an MA in Statecraft and International Affairs at The Institute of World Politics.