Defense & National Security — Russia says it’s retreating from Kherson, West not so sure

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Russia declared that its troops would retreat from the strategic city of Kherson in Ukraine’s south, but Western leaders don’t quite believe Moscow’s message. 

We’ll share what Russian officials said and the West’s response, plus an assessment of Moscow’s military might nearly nine months into its war with Ukraine, an assessment of the U.S. midterm election results from Kyiv, and a Navy ship commander relieved of his post in the midst of a deployment.  

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell.

Russia announces retreat, Ukraine alleges sabotage

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on Wednesday that Russian troops would retreat from the strategic city of Kherson in Ukraine’s south, which would signal another embarrassing blow for the Kremlin’s war effort.  

In a televised address, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, said Moscow was unable to supply the tens of thousands of soldiers in the city, forcing them to retreat and cross to the east bank of the Dnieper River, ceding a strategic western gateway.

Ukraine’s skepticism: However, Kyiv expressed skepticism on Wednesday, with an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saying some Russian units remained in the city. 

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak. “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight. A part of the ru-group is preserved in the city, and additional reserves are charged to the region. [Ukraine] is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.” 

Timing: Russia had shown signs of surrender in recent days, with a Russian flag coming down from the main administrative building in the region. However, Ukrainian officials and war experts suspected Russia was setting a trap.  

Occupying officials in the city have overseen forced evacuations of nearly 100,000 residents in the city in recent weeks.  

Ukrainian forces had been closing in on the city for weeks, reportedly liberating more than 100 towns and villages in the surrounding region amid an autumn counteroffensive. 

The Kremlin’s calculation: John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum, said Russia appeared to have calculated that leaving tens of thousands troops cut off in Kherson could be disastrous. 

“To see tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, POWs on the news around the world would have been significant,” he said. 

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PENTAGON: RUSSIA HAS LIKELY LOSE HALF ITS TANKS IN UKRAINE

Russia has likely lost half its tanks, used up most of its precision-guided weapons and suffered tens of thousands of casualties so far in its war against Ukraine, the Pentagon’s top policy official said Tuesday.   

Russia President Vladimir Putin “has failed,” Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters Tuesday.   

Assessed damage: “Russia will emerge from this war weaker than it went in,” he predicted. “They have suffered tens of thousands of casualties in eight months — orders of magnitude more than [the Soviet Union] experienced in Afghanistan in 10 years.”  

Kahl added that Russian forces have “probably lost half of their main battle tanks in the entire Russian military,” and they’ve “bogged down more than 80 percent of their land force in Ukraine.”  

The Kremlin has also “spent down a majority of their precision guided munitions in Ukraine, and the sanctions and export controls will make it very difficult for them to rebuild their military to what it looked like before the war,” Kahl said.   

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Kyiv lawmaker cheers ‘very good’ US election results

Democrats’ strong showing in the midterm elections is “very good for Ukraine,” a member of the Ukrainian parliament told The Hill on Wednesday.  

Oleksiy Goncharenko, who is part of the European Solidarity party in Ukraine, welcomed the early results from the midterm elections, saying he closely followed the defeat of candidates who pushed a more isolationist foreign policy and the victory of lawmakers who have supported U.S. assistance for Ukraine. 

“Speaking about the results from Ukraine perspective, it is clear that for Ukraine the danger was in those people, you can call them isolationist or far-right people, who were saying, ‘Let’s not care about Ukraine, it’s too far from us.’ … These people, I think they’re not right and American voters decided like this.” 

A key focus: Continued U.S. assistance to Ukraine had been a key focus in the political debate ahead of the elections, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saying Congress won’t write a “blank check” on aid for Ukraine if the GOP take control. 

While it is yet unclear whether Republicans will win control of Congress, Democrats had a much stronger night on Tuesday than anticipated. The party flipped a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, narrowing the GOP’s path to taking the upper chamber, and won more House races than expected, minimizing Republicans’ margins if they do take that chamber. 

Lame duck efforts: The Biden administration is rallying allies to support Ukraine with more assistance to repair its energy infrastructure, and lawmakers are reportedly in talks to secure an additional aid package to Ukraine during the lame-duck session of Congress.  

Goncharenko said the current situation in Kyiv is “not pleasant, but we can live like this.”  

Residents are collecting water and using power banks amid electricity cuts. Unseasonably warm temperatures are reducing the need for heating homes, but “sooner or later the winter will come and it will be [below freezing temperatures]. That will be a challenge,” he said. 

Read that story here

Navy relieves warship commander mid-deployment

The Navy has relieved the commanding officer of the guided-missile cruiser Normandy in the middle of the ship’s deployment, the service announced.   

Capt. Simon McKeon was relieved on Tuesday “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command,” less than eight months after he took control of the Normandy, according to a brief Navy press release. 

Reasons unknown: The announcement didn’t offer the reason for his dismissal, only adding that McKeon was temporarily moved to the staff of the commander for Naval Surface Force Atlantic.  

A Navy official told USNI News, which first reported the dismissal, that McKeon’s firing was a result of personal misconduct. 

An investigation: U.S. 2nd Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr. Lara Bollinger told The Hill on Wednesday that the Navy could not provide further details, citing an ongoing investigation around McKeon. 

McKeon took command of Normandy in March and the warship early last month left its base of Norfolk, Va., for the Atlantic Ocean as part of the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group. 

Read the full story here 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

  • The Wilson Center will host a virtual discussion on “Saudi Arabia and Oil: Between the U.S. and Russia,” at 10 a.m.  
  • The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft will hold a webinar on “How Will Midterm Outcomes Affect U.S. Policy on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?” at 12 p.m.  
  • The National Press Club will host a conversation: on “The war in Ukraine and efforts to get accurate information into Ukraine and Russia,” at 12 p.m.  
  • The Government Executive Media Group will hold an event on “Evolving Mission Partner Networks to Enhance Warfighter Capability: A Dispatch from TechNet Indo-Pac 2022,” at 1 p.m. 
  • The Richard Nixon Foundation will hold its Grand Strategy Summit with remarks by Henry Kissinger and former national security advisor Robert O’Brien at 6:45 p.m. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

OPINIONS IN THE HILL

That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you tomorrow!

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