A FEW months ago I stood on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city Mykolaiv listening to the thud of artillery and rocket fire coming from the direction of nearby Kherson.

Back then it seemed unlikely that ­Kherson, the sole Ukrainian regional ­capital that Russian forces had managed to capture since the start of the ­invasion on February 24, would be liberated ­any time soon.

Time and again, fiery declarations by Russian and pro-Kremlin officials had made it clear that Russia would stay in Kherson “forever”. It was a mantra ­reiterated by Russian president Vladimir Putin himself who in September hailed the annexation of Kherson, following a sham referendum in the region, saying its residents were “becoming our citizens forever”.

The Ukrainians, however, didn’t see it that way, and last Friday its troops entered Kherson city to the evident joy of a population that has lived under ­occupation for more than eight months.

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“The people of Kherson were waiting. They never gave up on Ukraine. Hope for Ukraine is always justified – and Ukraine always regains its own,” said a ­triumphant president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a ­national address to celebrate the victory.

Russia’s retreat from Kherson city was the latest in a string of military collapses including its failed attempt to seize Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, early in the war, and Ukraine’s lightning rout of Russian forces from the north-east Kharkiv region in September.

But even after Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and the new ­commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergei ­Surovikin, ordered the ­withdrawal of their troops from Kherson and ­performed an awkward dialogue on ­Russia 24 state television, formalising the decision to abandon Kherson “to save lives”, ­Ukrainian officials were still ­reacting with scepticism.

“We see no sign that Russia is ­leaving Kherson without a fight,” insisted ­Mykhailo Podolyak – a senior ­Ukrainian presidential adviser – as late as last ­Wednesday, dismissing what he called “staged TV statements” by Russian ­officials.

“Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal,” warned Podolyak.

Kyiv was understandably cautious, wary of being lured into what many feared was a Russian military trap, but by Friday such fears were dismissed as the first Ukrainian soldiers entered the Black Sea port city.

So just how significant a military ­victory is the retaking of Kherson that sits on the mighty Dnipro River? What impact, too, will it now have on the future course of the war and Russia’s ­occupation of other Ukrainian territory? And ­perhaps most importantly, what are the political ­ramifications for Russia as a result of its defeat in Kherson, which has piled yet more pressure on Putin?

To take the military perspective first, Russia’s retreat certainly makes ­tactical sense. The Russian position on the ­western bank of the Dnipro River had become increasingly vulnerable in recent months, with Ukrainian forces ­gradually capturing villages and defensive ­positions along an extended front line while also targeting vital Russian logistics by ­repeatedly hitting bridges over the Dnipro to prevent resupply.

Writing for the US international ­affairs think tank Atlantic Council, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, chairman of the Centre for Defence Strategies and Ukraine’s ­former minister of defence, outlined how the ­decision to withdraw might also prove convenient for General Surovikin ­enabling him to place the blame for the retreat on his predecessors.

That said, however, the harsh ­reality for Moscow is that it has lost its only ­stronghold on the west bank of the Dnipro River, Ukraine’s largest and ­widest.

“Ukrainian forces will not let Russians cross the Dnipro anymore,” was how Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russia expert in Germany’s Bremen University, summed it up speaking to Al Jazeera news in the wake of Russia’s withdrawal.

The pull-out also means Russian forces “lose a chance to part Ukraine in two” by advancing towards central regions, Mitrokhin added.

Up until the end of the summer, there was little doubt that one of Russia’s major strategic goals was to create a land bridge that would lead all the way from Crimea to the port city of Odesa, cutting Ukraine off from the Black Sea.

As analysis from the Russian-English ­language independent news website ­Meduza has indicated, Russian troops will now need to be redeployed to more ­favourable positions which are much ­easier to ­supply.

Having retreated across the Dnipro ­River, Russia will free up some of its combat-ready troops, but at the same time it will also free up even more of Ukraine’s.

In addition, Russia will have to build a new line of defence along the river; the Dnipro alone won’t be an ­insurmountable obstacle for Ukraine. Additionally, ­Russia’s new defence line will have to be twice as long as its current one.

Russia’s logistical bases in the rear, too, will now be within reach of Ukrainian ­artillery and multiple rocket launchers, Meduza’s analysis concludes.

As many battlefield watchers see it, Kherson is a location from which Ukraine can “recalibrate” its counter-offensive.

Kherson city lies roughly 62 miles from the isthmus that provides Russia a narrow land corridor to resupply its troops from its large bases there. On that land corridor lie three important roads that along with Russian supply and ammunition dumps would fall within range of Ukraine’s western-supplied high-precision rocket systems.

In other words, a critical supply route that has fuelled Russia’s war effort from the peninsula would come under threat.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Serhiy Kuzan, an adviser at Ukraine’s defence ministry, underlined the ­strategic ­importance of that part of Kherson ­province located on the right bank of the Dnipro River.

“It gives us firepower control of the roads from Crimea used as supply lines by the Russians … it will be a very big blow to the Russian forces,” Kuzan said.

Even if Ukraine’s advance in south-east Ukraine slows and the ground war sinks into a stalemate over winter as many ­military officials believe, Kherson’s ­recapture will give Kyiv leverage as it ­lobbies western governments to step up supplies of arms and ammunition and ­financial support.

SO much then for the military perspective and what it could mean for the war on the ground, but what of the political ramifications for Russia and how they might play out?

Put quite simply, Moscow now appears to be running out of excuses for how the war is being conducted on the ground in Ukraine. For Putin himself, it’s hard to overstate the political consequences of the events of the past few days in Kherson.

As ever, the Russian leader has gone to ground when bad news about the war needs to be announced. Putting his top military leaders Shoigu and ­Surovikin, in front of the cameras was a ­significant move. It thrust them into the spotlight, making it clear who would be held ­responsible for further failures.

Writing in the online platform The ­Conversation, Matthew Sussex, a ­Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies ­Centre, Australian National University, ­highlighted how on the domestic front, ­Putin’s attempt to limit the fallout by ­setting up the military for ­scapegoating is becoming “not just increasingly ­indefensible, but also politically ­perilous”.

“The inherent vulnerability of ­autocrats like Putin is they can only blame the most heavily armed portion of ­society for so long. Without careful ­management, or at least some tale of ­success to ­counterbalance the failures, it’s ­dangerous to make enemies of those with the most effective means to ­challenge a leader,” warned ­Sussex.

Some observers have suggested that the only way Surovikin could realistically have sold the idea of the Kherson retreat to Putin was by offering the promise of ­assured success in the east. One can only guess at the consequences if such ­promises are not fulfilled on the ­battlefield.

As for responses to news of the Kherson defeat, many prominent Russians have been forthcoming in their concern while not exactly criticising Putin outright.

Speaking in an interview, former ­Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov described the surrender of Kherson as “the largest geopolitical defeat of Russia since the ­collapse of the USSR”, noting Putin’s ­personal guarantee that the territory would always be part of Russia.

“This is, of course, a huge blow to the mood of the population,” said Markov. “It is a huge blow to the army – to their fighting spirit. It is a blow to respect for president Putin and a blow for optimism.”

Moscow’s hardline pro-war faction and nationalist military bloggers were even more direct, calling the surrender of Kherson a “betrayal” and a “black day”.

Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin journalist and politician Andrey Medvedev said on ­Telegram: “What now to say about ­Kherson? Yes, I’m not happy either, like many of you. Yes, I also thought that there would be a different solution. That a ­fortified area would be made from the city.

“You can turn the city into a large ­fortification, while having difficulties with logistics. You can even defend it.”

Medvedev added that the decision to withdraw would not have been made without the approval of Putin.

“I don’t really like the solution, but we are at war and the decision of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief in such a situation cannot be challenged.”

Other Russian journalists also ­expressed dismay at the news, with ­Alexander Kots saying on Twitter: “You will agree that there is not much good news from any direction.”

Another, Konstantin Semin, told his followers on Telegram that they should “get ready” for the excuses behind the withdrawal, saying: “Now you will be ­convincingly told about the indisputable advantages of the decisions that have been made.”

Some assessments, though, of Putin’s ­position in the wake of the Kherson ­defeat say it would be wrong to view it as a political Achilles heel.

In an op-ed piece in the ­Financial Times, Alexander Baunov, ­former ­Russian diplomat and ­international policy ­expert, says that “in the eyes of dissatisfied ­Russians, any form of resistance to the West is a victory, almost regardless of the end result”.

“This is why there is no direct link ­between military setbacks and the ­weakening of Putin’s power. It is as ­difficult for the president to lose this war as it is to win it,” says Baunov, adding that any critics of Putin will simply be ­“silenced with repression”.

BUT repression or not, there is increasing evidence that some within the ranks of Moscow’s elite and billionaires are becoming acutely aware of the mounting military failures in a war they most likely – privately – view as unnecessary.

Some Russia watchers are even ­talking of a growing split between Russia’s ­hardline pro-war groups and the ­business executives and bureaucrats ­desperately looking for a way out of the war and ­a return to some semblance of “business as usual”.

As for most ordinary Russian citizens, they for now at least appear convinced by the military’s explanations that the ­Kherson surrender was necessary to save lives and Putin will likely double down in trying to change the narrative from ­failure to success.

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For Ukrainians, of course, this almost certainly will mean being on the ­receiving end of yet more indiscriminate strikes against Ukrainian population centres, against power and water as well as other civilian infrastructure.

The likelihood of Putin ordering such renewed and intensified attacks has not stopped Ukrainians taking to ­social media to celebrate the Kherson withdrawal as another significant win and evidence that the war is moving in the right direction for their nation.

But this weekend, as Ukrainians ­celebrate what has been an extraordinary military victory, satellite imagery from open-source intelligence analysis shows Russian forces digging extensive trenches and other fortifications further east in the Kherson region.

While history might well prove that the events of the past few days were indeed a ­turning point, this war is far from being over.