Russia has ordered its troops to retreat from the key occupied city of Kherson, Vladimir Putin’s top military officials have announced, potentially marking a major setback for Moscow in its nine-month war against Ukraine.
Sergei Shoigu, the Kremlin’s defence minister, told troops on Wednesday to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River in the face of continued Ukrainian attacks.
The announcement could signal one of Russia’s most significant retreats and a potential turning point in the war. Kherson, a port city in the south of Ukraine, is the only regional centre Moscow’s forces had captured and held since President Putin launched the invasion in February. The Kremlin annexed it in September.
In televised comments, Sergei Surovikin, the general in overall command of the war, said it was no longer possible to supply the city. He said he proposed to take up defensive lines on the eastern bank of the river, admitting it was “not a very simple decision”.
General Surovikin, who was recently appointed by Mr Putin to try to get a grip on Russia’s ailing military campaign, said 115,000 people had been evacuated from the city since Moscow started moving out civilians in anticipation of a Ukrainian assault.
“There will be an additional threat to the civilian population and the complete isolation of our group of troops on the right bank of the Dnieper [the Russian name for the river],” he said of the situation in the southern region.
“Assessing the situation, it is proposed to take up defence along the left bank of the Dnieper River.”
Mr Shoigu responded: “I agree with your conclusions and proposals. Proceed with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to transfer forces across the river.”
Ukraine was cautious in its response to the news, with officials warning all involved to “maintain operational silence”. The Ukrainian defence ministry declined to immediately comment when approached by The Independent.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, said the Ukrainian army had destroyed Russian logistics corridors and supply routes, leaving Moscow “no choice”. But he warned that it was still “too early to talk about the complete withdrawal of the Russian army from Kherson”.
“Time will tell whether the city will be left without a fight or the Russian command is trying to create an information trap,” he said. “The Ukrainian command makes decisions based on an assessment of the real situation, and not television statements,” he added.
He had earlier said on Twitter that a significant contingent of Russian forces remained within the city of Kherson, and that additional forces are present in the region.
If the withdrawal is confirmed, this will deal a significant blow to Russia. Kherson is a strategic industrial city that was once home to 280,000 people.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces had zeroed in on the city, which sits on the river that divides the region and the country itself. Endorsed by President Putin, Russia has raced to relocate tens of thousands of residents in the area amid reports of Ukrainian advances towards the city.
In his televised address, Gen Surovikin said the move would “save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units”.
“Keeping them on the right [western] bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts,” he added.
In Kherson oblast, north of the regional capital, despite the news of a withdrawal, Russian forces continued to pound Ukrainian-held villages located along the Dnipro River on Wednesday. There, civilians described life under fire as “armageddon”.
“We had seven incoming mortars and grad missiles this morning alone,” Serhiy, 47, a resident of Novooleksandrivka, told The Independent. The village is located along the frontline, just five kilometres from Russian positions.
“It is like armageddon here; they are shelling every day, mortar, artillery, drones, everything,” he added, scrambling for cover as an incoming strike exploded in the background.
Further north, the mayor of the decimated town of Osokorivka – also along the Dnipro River and also under fire – said its residents were trying to survive with no electricity as winter arrived. Serhii Ivanovich, 57, was jailed and tortured by Russian troops when his town was occupied in March.
“We have been promised electricity will come back. Right now civilians are using water pumps,” he said, surrounded by the charred remains of obliterated buildings.
“They are also heavily shelling towns south of us,” he said, adding that he did not think the attacks would decrease if Russia retreated from Kherson city.
Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, on a visit to London, welcomed what he called the “encouraging” news from Kherson, and noted the substantial military help the alliance was providing to Kyiv.
“The victories, the gains the Ukrainian armed forces are making, belong to the brave, courageous Ukrainian soldiers; but of course the support they receive from the United Kingdom, from Nato allies and partners, is also essential,” said Mr Stoltenberg.
Complicating the news of Russia’s position in Kherson, Russia announced that Moscow’s No 2 official in the region, Kirill Stremousov, had been killed on Wednesday in what Moscow said was a car crash.
The death of Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-installed local administration in Kherson, came just hours before the announcement that Russian troops would withdraw. Stremousov was one of the most prominent faces of Russia’s occupation. Ukraine viewed him as a collaborator and a traitor.
In a video statement only hours before his death, Stremousov denounced what he called Ukrainian “Nazis” and said that the Russian military was in “full control” of the situation in the south.
Russia was thought to have been planning a retreat across the Dnipro River for the past week or so, as a battle for Kherson looked set to be highly damaging.
Earlier on Wednesday, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up.
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