Svitlana Moronets. Nov 11, 2022
The only large Ukrainian city Russia has been able to capture since February’s invasion – Kherson – has now been liberated. But something else extraordinary happened: Russian reports emerged of thousands of troops being left on the right bank of the Dnipro river after the occupiers blew up the mile-long Antonivsky bridge.
Moscow flatly denies this, saying: ‘Not a single unit of soldiers, military equipment and weapons was left on the right bank of the Dnipro.’ But pro-Kremlin military blogs are full of reports to the contrary, some saying that thousands of Russians have been left on the wrong side of the river. If even some are captured, they could be exchanged for Ukrainian prisoners of war. Ukraine has been shelling the river all night, to discourage attempts at escape.
The fog of war and misinformation (which can suit both sides) makes it hard to say with any confidence what’s happening. What follows could be an entirely fictional Kremlin narrative, to lure Ukraine into a trap and a city laced with booby traps (or a city about to be razed by Russian missiles, as Grozny was in 1999). Ukrainian troops have now entered the city and are being greeted by grateful liberated residents.
But I’d like to present a selection of comments from pro-Kremlin bloggers on Telegram from last night: keyboard warriors who normally follow Putin’s line but are now venting fury at the retreat and its implications.
‘Just received a message from Kherson. Things are much worse there than we might have thought,’ wrote Russian war blogger Alex Parker last night. ‘There was some kind of evacuation deal that the Kremlin believed in, but it turned out to be a con. Apparently, the Americans made a promise which Ukraine ignored.’ He doesn’t say what that promise was. Parker writes about panicking Russian soldiers abandoning military equipment and trying to cross the river, and states that ‘about 20,000 soldiers may be captured’. He is livid. ‘The Kremlin has just murdered with its own hands the entire grouping that held the right bank of Kherson,’ Parker added. Ukraine has made no comments about any captured Russian troops yet.
Another Russian war blogger, Dimitriyev, describes panic among the retreating Russian forces. ‘It has been impossible to cross [the Dnipo river] peacefully, the Ukrainian army keeps shelling the crossings. There has been no amnesty. A military disaster is looming,’ he writes. His words are followed by Valeria Petrusiewich, a Russian volunteer: ‘Ukrainian troops continue shelling Kherson’s crossings, stabbing our guys in the back.’
A pro-Russian Telegram channel writes that, rather than having been evacuated, Russian soldiers were trying to flee ‘on anything that can float. There are fights over small boats, rubber boats, because at large crossings there is a risk of coming under fire’. The Russian fighter previously in Kherson, ‘13th’, speaks on the chances of returning Kherson: ‘If we keep fighting like this, we will lose Crimea too.’ The soldier adds: ‘In one unit, the last order was to change into civilian clothes and bugger off however you want.’
Pro-Russian Telegram channel ‘Volya’ quotes Russian officers trying to cross the river: ‘Crossings are under fire. Why would they marinade us here for 24 hours without orders to expose us to Ukrainian artillery like this?’ They add that between 18,000 and 22,000 Russian troops remain on the wrong side of the Dnipro ‘huddled around crossings. If the Ukrainian strikes succeed, the Russian army will suffer its biggest losses since the start of the war’.
There has been no official confirmation of Russian soldiers being found within Kherson yet. Nevertheless, this afternoon the Ukrainian secret service addressed Russian soldiers telling them that they had been abandoned and should surrender immediately. It also said that changing into civilian clothes, as some Russian soldiers are reported to have done, will not work and attempts to escape the area are futile.
Russian commentary has now veered from panic about what might come next – talking about not just Crimea (where trenches are already being dug) but the defence of Russia itself. Ukraine’s military could now ‘start moving to Moscow’, according to Russian political analyst Rostislav Ishchenko. ‘In 7-8 hours, a convoy of military equipment, if it crosses the border near Gluhiv, will reach the capital at 70 kilometres per hour.’ Ishchenko says that ‘Ukrainian commanders have nothing to lose’ and can even take the Kremlin. Ukrainians laugh at such statements – but it’s funny to think we have moved from ‘we will take Kyiv in three days’ to ‘they will invade the Kremlin’.
Misinformation is a weapon used regularly in this war. It’s clear that Russian units were not ready for the speed of the retreat; some knew nothing about it due to communication problems or the lack of responsibility of the Russian command. Ukrainian troops have already entered the city. Very soon we will find out what awaits them.
This article first appeared in this week’s Ukraine in Focus newsletter. Sign up for free here.
Svitlana Morenets is a Ukrainian journalist currently at The Spectator and writes Ukraine in Focus, a weekly email with last updates on the war.