The Liberation of Kherson And The Art of War

In breaking news Ukraine has won the Battle of Kherson and retaken the largest city seized by the bumbling Russian army. Amazingly, Ukrainian forces simply walked into the city, the Russians having abandoned it. Jubilant crowds welcomed the Ukrainian forces freeing them of their Russian occupiers. The victory is part of a vast Russian general retreat as they pull all their forces that were North of the Dnipro River to the South side of it. Only yesterday the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) map looked like this.

Today, pretty much everything above that red line is turned blue.

Kherson was Russia’s biggest prize and they did not want to let it go. They sacrificed much in their effort to hold it. As I previously explained, Russia pulled forces from the North to bolster Kherson’s defenses and their doing so allowed a Ukrainian breakthrough in the North that liberated Kharkiv and captured massive amounts of Russian equipment.

Yet, for all they lost trying to hold Kherson the Russians gave it up today almost without a fight. The reason they did so was because they could not fight. Any attempt to hold Kherson was tactically untenable. It would lead to the forces doing so being trapped on the wrong side of the Dnipro River, without escape, without reinforcement and without ability to be supplied.

While it is not quite fair to say the Russians gave up this prize without firing a shot, it is almost true. It may almost sound like a joke, but it is true.

Why did the Russians leave?

Because they could not stay.

This tactical coup has been months in the making. The Ukrainians made the defense of Kherson untenable by using American supplied HIMARS rockets to cripple the bridges across the Dnipro River needed to supply and reinforce Kherson. The Russians desperately tried work arounds. They built pontoon bridges, the Ukrainians destroyed those. They tried using ferries, the Ukrainians destroyed those.

The Russians were left with two choices. Fight and die or retreat and live.

The military art of shaping the battlefield to create that choice is generally credited to Sun Tzu, a great Chinese general from roughly 500 B.C. Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War is standard reading for American military officers. Sun Tzu argued that the best generals won by avoiding direct combat, by maneuvering their enemies into situations from which they must retreat or surrender. Consider some of his most well known quotes.

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.”

“The wise warrior avoids the battle.”

“One mark of a great soldier is that he fight on his own terms or fights not at all.”

“The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.”

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

That last quote is perhaps his most famous. A hard lesson for the subdued Russians.

I don’t know how much American advice contributed to this amazing victory. I do know that the lessons of Sun Tzu are standard instruction for American military officers.



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Retired lawyer & Army vet in The Villages of Florida. Lifelong: Republican (pre-Trump), Constitution buff, science nerd & dog lover. Twitter: @KeithDB80