The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) escalated claims of Russian territorial gains in Donetsk Oblast on November 13 and 14, likely to emphasize that Russian forces are intensifying operations in Donetsk Oblast following withdrawal from the right bank of Kherson Oblast. The Russian MoD claimed that Russian forces completed the capture of Mayorsk (20km south of Bakhmut) on November 13 and of Pavlivka (45km southwest of Donetsk City) on November 14 after several weeks of not making claims of Russian territorial gains. As ISW assessed on November 13, Russian forces will likely recommit troops to Donetsk Oblast after leaving the right bank of Kherson Oblast, which will likely lead to an intensification of operations around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces will likely make gains in these areas in the coming days and weeks, but these gains are unlikely to be operationally significant. The Russian MoD is likely making more concrete territorial claims in order to set information conditions to frame Russian successes in Donetsk Oblast and detract from discontent regarding losses in Kherson Oblast.
Ukraine has won an important victory in the campaign that liberated western Kherson Oblast, culminating in the withdrawal of Russian forces completed on November 11. Russian President Vladimir Putin had been determined to hold this key terrain, possession of which would have allowed him to renew his invasion of unoccupied Ukraine from positions on the west bank of the Dnipro River. That consideration was likely more important in Putin‘s calculations than the symbolic value of retaining the only oblast capital his forces had seized since February 24, 2022. (Russia had already taken Luhansk City and Donetsk City in its 2014-2015 invasion.) Putin had committed substantial Russian forces to the defense of western Kherson, including many of the remaining elite airborne units available to the Russian military. He also committed reinforcements generated by the partial mobilization of reservists he had ordered on September 21. Those forces had dug in and fought hard to hold their ground, taking many losses. Ukraine’s success despite this Russian determination and allocation of scarce elite units is in many respects even more impressive than its victory in Kharkiv Oblast in mid-September.
Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson City is igniting an ideological fracture between pro-war figures and Russian President Vladimir Putin, eroding confidence in Putin’s commitment and ability to deliver his war promises. A pro-war Russian ideologist, Alexander Dugin, openly criticized Putin—whom he referred to as the autocrat—for failing to uphold Russian ideology by surrendering Kherson City on November 12. Dugin said this Russian ideology defines Russia’s responsibility to defend “Russian cities” such as Kherson, Belgorod, Kursk, Donetsk, and Simferopol. Dugin noted that an autocrat has a responsibility to save his nation all by himself or face the fate of “king of the rains,” a reference to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough in which a king was killed because he was unable to deliver rain amidst a drought. Dugin also downplayed the role of Putin’s advisors in failing to protect the Russian world and noted that the commander of Russian Forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergey Surovikin was not responsible for the political decision to withdraw from Kherson City. Dugin noted that the autocrat cannot repair this deviation from ideology merely with public appearances, noting that “the authorities in Russia cannot surrender anything else” and that “the limit has been reached.” He also accused the presidential administration of upholding a “fake” ideology because of its fear of committing to the “Russian Idea.” Dugin also made a reference to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which he vaguely stated was “the end” and proceeded to note that overdue Russian changes to the military campaign have not generated any effect to change the course of the war. He also suggested, however, that Russia must commit to the Russian Idea rather than pursuing the “stupid” use of nuclear weapons.
Ukrainian forces are completing the liberation of the western (right) bank of Kherson Oblast after the Russians retreated from it. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces completed the withdrawal to the eastern (left) bank of the Dnipro River at 5am local time on November 11. While contingents of Russian soldiers likely remain on the west bank, they are likely scattered throughout the Oblast and attempting to retreat as Ukrainian forces push towards the Dnipro River, although some may have remained behind to attempt to conduct partisan activities in small groups. It is unclear how many Russian soldiers remain on the west bank at this time. Russian sources noted that the withdrawal lasted three days and claimed that 20,000 Russian personnel and 3,500 units of military equipment moved across the Dnipro River.
Ukrainian forces steadily advanced in Kherson Oblast on November 10 as Russian forces conduct a withdrawal to the east (left) bank of the Dnipro River. Ukrainian military officials and geolocated social media footage confirm that Ukrainian troops have made gains northwest, west, and northeast of Kherson City in the past 24 hours and advanced up to 7km in some areas. Russian forces so far appear to be withdrawing in relatively good order, and Ukrainian forces are making expected gains without routing Russian forces, as they did in the Kharkiv counteroffensive. Ukrainian strikes since August have successfully degraded Russian supply lines on the west (right) bank to force Russian forces to withdraw and will liberate Kherson Oblast to the Dnipro River in the coming days or weeks. The Russian withdrawal will take some time to complete, and fighting will continue throughout Kherson Oblast as Ukrainian troops advance and come up against pre-prepared Russian defensive lines, especially around Kherson City.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) ordered Russian forces on the west (right) bank of the Dnipro River to begin withdrawing to the east (left) bank on November 9. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops across the Dnipro River during a highly staged televised meeting with Commander of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine Army General Sergey Surovikin on November 9. During the televised meeting, Surovikin recommended the withdrawal and Shoigu accepted his decision, giving Surovikin the task of ensuring the “safe transfer of personnel, weapons, and equipment” to the east (left) bank. Shoigu and Surovikin’s statements mark the beginning of a steady, fighting withdrawal by Russian troops across the Dnipro to prepared positions on the east (left) bank to preserve the combat power of Russian units, including elements of the 76th and 106th Airborne Assault Divisions and 22nd Army Corps. Surovikin notably stated that half of the troops withdrawn from the west bank of the Dnipro will be redeployed to other areas of Ukraine. The entire Russian contingent will take some time to withdraw across the Dnipro River and it is still unclear if Russian forces will be able to conduct the withdrawal in relatively good order under Ukrainian pressure. The battle of Kherson is not over, but Russian forces have entered a new phase—prioritizing withdrawing their forces across the river in good order and delaying Ukrainian forces, rather than seeking to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive entirely.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) issued a rare statement on November 7 in response to extensive Russian milblogger outcry on November 6 about reported extensive losses and poor command within the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Pacific Fleet. Russian milbloggers published and circulated a letter that claimed Russian military leadership “threw” the brigade into an “incomprehensible offensive” near Pavlivka, Donetsk Oblast, where it suffered losses amounting to over 300 killed, wounded, and missing and lost half of its equipment, all within four days. The letter explicitly blamed Eastern Military District Commander Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov, 155th Naval Infantry Brigade Commander Colonel Zurab Akhmedov, and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov for the brigade’s losses and called on Primorsky Krai Governor Oleg Kozhemyako to conduct an independent review of the actions of the officers involved in planning and conducting the recent Russian offensive push in western Donetsk Oblast. The tone of many Russian milblogger responses to the letter resembles the response following the destruction of a Russian motorized rifle brigade crossing the SIverskyi Donets River on May 11, after which many pro-war milbloggers increased their direct criticism of the Russian military.
Key Kremlin officials began collectively deescalating their rhetoric regarding the use of nuclear weapons in early November. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a statement on “the prevention of nuclear war” on November 2, stating that Russia “is strictly and consistently guided by the postulate of the inadmissibility of a nuclear war in which there can be no winners, and which must never be unleashed.” The Russian MFA also stated that it is committed to the reduction and limitation of nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated on October 27 that Russia has no need to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and claimed Russia has never discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons, only “hinting at the statements made by leaders of Western countries.” The deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, has similarly increasingly downplayed the fiery nuclear rhetoric he used throughout October and is now focusing on promoting Russian unity in the war in Ukraine.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seeks to obfuscate his efforts to strengthen his independent power base with an appeal to the concept of Russia’s historic unity. Prigozhin provided a vague response to a media inquiry regarding his recent visit to Kursk Oblast on Russia’s Unity Day (November 4), during which he had indirectly implied that Wagner forces are involved in upholding Russia’s unity. Prigozhin stated that Russian people, businesses, government, and army need to come together to fight for Russia’s sovereignty and its great future while deflecting from the journalist’s question regarding Prigozhin’s reported meeting with Kursk businessmen about the organization of an unspecified people’s militia – outside of formal Russian military command structures. Prigozhin also noted that Russia has all the ingredients to achieve its goals including a strong president, cohesive army, and great nationhood, which he concluded with an out-of-place greeting from Wagner fighters. Prigozhin later claimed in a follow up media response that his “independence” does not contradict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics as some audiences have interpreted.
The Russian military is likely trying to use mobilized personnel to restart the Donetsk offensive but will likely still fail to achieve operationally significant gains. Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Valerii Zaluzhnyi reported on November 4 that Russian forces have tripled the intensity of hostilities in certain sections of the front with up to 80 daily assaults. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces are currently focusing those offensive operations in the direction of Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and western Donetsk Oblast. The Ukrainian Eastern Group of troops spokesperson Serhiy Cherevatyi stated on November 4 that Russian forces are likely trying to seize Bakhmut and Soledar in Donetsk Oblast so that Russia can declare some type of success by announcing the “liberation” of the Donbas (even though those gains would not give Russia control over the entire region). Cherevatyi also noted the presence of mobilized men in the Bakhmut direction, an area that should not in principle see many mobilized personnel given the extensive presence in this area of Wagner Group and proxy units that should not be receiving large numbers of Russian reservists. ISW previously assessed that Russian forces prematurely impaled an insufficient concentration of mobilized personnel on offensive pushes near Bakhmut and Vuhledar in Donetsk Oblast on November 3. The apparent intensification of Russian assaults in Donetsk Oblast likely indicates that Russian forces are repeating that mistake throughout this section of the front. The increased quantity of personnel at frontline positions may allow Russian forces to achieve some gains in Donetsk Oblast, but poor training, logistics, and command will continue to prevent Russian forces from making operationally significant gains that would materially affect the course or outcome of the war.