March 3, 2024

Comes to The Hotel Palats

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
Everyone comes to the Hotel Palats
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
          KHERSON, UKRAINE — Everyone comes to the Palats, a four-story boutique hotel in the heart of Mykolaiv and temporary quarters for an eclectic assortment of characters bound together by the wail of air raid sirens and explosions of incoming Russian missiles.
          War correspondents were here. A hat salesman was here in between excursions to the front, but he had no hats. Whatever he was selling, it wasn’t hats. Another with wary words of warnings appeared and vanished like a Macbethian apparition. The Ukrainian bodyguards were here, armed and mandated to protect people and information with unforgiving force. Ukrainian Army volunteers were here, they the most temporary residents of all. And I was here, immersing in this unusual array.
          The Russians had been stopped here many months before, following which they exacted vengeance on the population with missiles. So, the sirens wailed day after day, but no one sought shelter. No one took notice and they carried on out of contempt, rolling destiny’s dice, leaving life and death to fate.
          And fate was accelerating. More than 63,000 Russian soldiers had been crammed into the untenable one hundred mile long by 30-mile-wide Kherson perimeter 15 miles down the road from Mykolaiv. With the wide Dnipro River at their backs and Ukrainian artillery and drones destroying all the fixed and pontoon bridge crossings, they could not sustain their position. The “apparition” said 24,000 tried to cross the Dnipro and suffered accordingly. It was then that their military command in Moscow announced a retreat.
          The Hotel Palats came alive. The London Times’ Marc Bennetts and his intrepid crew of three decided to slip into Kherson and I went with them to evaluate and advise on military matters to all who would listen. The Ukrainian checkpoints were not yet fully manned or briefed and our driver/fixer Alex, a former Soviet soldier, bluffed our way through.
          It was a circuitous route, and we followed a military convoy when pavement turned to dirt. Dirt is where Russians planted landmines, those pointless gifts of vengeance. As a result, we entered the city just hours after the Russians departed. There was no electricity, water, or Internet. Sleeping accommodations were sparse and public bathrooms almost nonexistent. It was cold.
          Almost immediately rumors, disinformation, and poor reporting were exposed. My shadowy apparition had divulged that thousands of Russians had surrendered, some of them after killing their officers. Others had shed their uniforms and donned stolen civilian clothes (I later saw two of them tied to a flagpole). So, he assumed the retreat became a demoralized rout. It was not.
          True, there was the destroyed Antonovsky Bridge and remnants of a pontoon bridge, but where was the detritus of war, the destroyed tanks, artillery, and vehicles? The Russian casualties? The hospitalized Russian soldiers? Clearly, the Russians were given free passage in exchange for Kherson. Neither Ukrainian nor Russian authorities acknowledged this, but it explains why the Russians announced their retreat, an action no army would normally reveal.
          The deal lasted only as long as it took for the Russians to escape. Once across they reverted to vengeance tactics and began shelling Kherson.
          Now, everyone (except the apparition and hat man) – The Washington Post, New York Times, NBC, BBC, German and Ukrainian media – came to Kherson in the days that followed, and I provided briefings to them on the actual military situation and gave an analysis of what I expected – and suggested – was coming. Nic Robertson of CNN put me on air.
          I explained that having failed to take Ukraine, the Russians attempted and failed to seize Novorussiya, the Russian-speaking southern portion of the country from the Donbas to Moldova. Now they were on the east side of the Dnipro, hoping for a stalemate and a negotiated peace. They were wrong.
          The sound of a U.S.-supplied high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) firing over our heads from west of Kherson out of Russian artillery range tells a non-verbal story well-known to both sides. Almost every precision round hits its target. The system sits atop a truck giving it a shoot-and-scoot capability to avoid drone attacks. As such, it has been a game-changer, the weapon most feared by the Russians.
          I never saw or heard a plane, Russian or Ukrainian in this sector probably due to increasingly accurate air defense systems on both sides, which is why artillery duels constitute the most significant combat activity. This explains why the battle lines see little movement until one side cracks under withering artillery fire, which is what happened in Kherson.
       Meanwhile, the Russians who did escape were undoubtedly demoralized and greatly reduced in numbers, and the Ukrainians pressed on across the river over the dam 60 miles north of the city and swampland in the delta south of the city. But information is scarce. The Ukrainians refuse to acknowledge their progress even though it is no secret to the Russians. So, here we must surmise.
          We do know that Ukrainian forces are fighting on the east side of the delta, but this is probably a feint to draw Russians south. What we do not know is the state of affairs in the area of the dam, the one remaining structure spanning the river. It is here that Ukrainian forces are hopefully massing for a breakthrough that would turn the flank of the entire Russian line along the Dnipro to the Black Sea. If accomplished, they should be able to drive headlong to Crimea and trap the entire Russian army in the west.
          The Russians do not have enough troops in the east to replace the forces along the Dnipro. As a result, Crimea could possibly fall, and the Ukrainians would press on eastward toward Mariupol and the Donbas. Should this come to pass the war will end, and most likely Vladimir Putin’s tenure in office will end with it.
          And the media? They returned to the Palats and beyond. As for me, I had a wild night ride back in a Ukrainian Army vehicle and my “hat man” set me up with the Ukrainian Army to offer its officers my taped interview of presumptuous advice.
          See Eleanor Clift’s latest book Selecting a President, and Douglas Cohn’s latest books The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2021 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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