Kyiv, Ukraine — Russia said it began withdrawing its troops from a strategic Ukrainian city on Thursday, creating a potential turning point in the bitter war, while a Ukrainian official warned that Russian landmines could make Kherson a “city of death”.
Ukrainian officials acknowledged that Moscow’s forces had no choice but to flee Kherson, but they remained cautious, fearing an ambush. With Ukrainian officials tight-lipped about their assessments, absent journalists and patchy communications, it was unclear what was happening in the port city, where residents left behind after tens of thousands fled were afraid to leave their homes. .
A forced withdrawal from Kherson – the only provincial capital captured by Moscow after it invaded Ukraine in February – would mark one of Russia’s worst war setbacks. Reclaiming the city, whose pre-war population was 280,000, could provide Ukraine with a launching pad for supplies and troops to try to reclaim other lost territories in the south, including the Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
Ukrainian forces appear to be scoring more battlefield successes elsewhere in the Kherson region and moving closer to the city. President Volodymyr Zelenskky said on Thursday evening that the pace had increased so much that residents “now check almost every hour when our units have arrived and where our national flag has been hoisted”.
Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhny said Kyiv forces had advanced 36.5 kilometers (22.7 miles) and retaken 41 villages and towns since Oct. 1 in the province, which the Kremlin illegally annexed. This included 12 colonies on Wednesday alone.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Russian troops laid mines all over Kherson as they retreated to make it a “city of death” and predicted they would shell it after crossing the Dnieper.
From these new positions, the Kremlin could attempt to escalate the 8.5-month war, which US estimates may have already killed or injured tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of troops. .
Arkadiy Dovzhenko, who fled Kherson in June, said his grandparents who still lived there told him on Thursday that “the Russians brought a lot of equipment into the city and also exploited every square centimeter of it”.
Zelenskyy said late Thursday that his forces were rushing to remove landmines from 170,000 square meters (65,637 square miles) across the country, and also planned to do so in Kherson. A spokeswoman for the military in southern Ukraine, Natalia Humeniuk, told Ukrainian television that resistance forces working behind enemy lines are “carefully collecting information” on critical infrastructure threatened by mines.
On Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the withdrawal of troops from Kherson and nearby areas after his top general in Ukraine reported that a loss of supply routes during the counter-offensive of the southern Ukraine made a defense “futile”.
The Shoigu ministry on Thursday reported a “maneuver of units of the Russian group” on the east bank of the Dnieper, also known as the left bank.
On Thursday, Ukrainian officials appeared to soften the skepticism they had expressed about whether the Russians were really on the run or trying to entrap the Ukrainian soldiers. “The enemy had no choice but to flee,” Armed Forces Chief Zaluzhny said, as the Kyiv army destroyed supply systems and disrupted Russia’s local military command.
Still, he said the Ukrainian military could not confirm a Russian withdrawal.
Alexander Khara of the Kyiv-based Center for Defense Strategies think tank echoed those concerns, saying he still feared Russian forces would destroy a dam upstream of Kherson and flood the approaches to the city. The former Ukrainian diplomat also warned of pitfalls and other possible dangers.
“I would be surprised if the Russians hadn’t put something in place, surprises for Ukraine,” Khara said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who just over a month ago celebrated the annexation of Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions and pledged to defend them by all means, did not comment on the withdrawal .
A resident said Kherson was deserted on Thursday and explosions could be heard around the Antonivskiy Bridge – a key Dnieper crossing that Ukrainian forces have repeatedly shelled.
“Life in the city seems to have come to a standstill. Everyone has disappeared somewhere and no one knows what will happen next,” said Konstantin, a resident whose last name has not been released for security reasons.
He said Russian flags had disappeared from administrative buildings in the city and there were no signs left of Russian military personnel who had previously moved into the apartments of evacuated residents. Russian state news agency Tass reported that emergency services such as police and medical personnel would leave with the last Russian troops.
Halyna Lugova, head of Ukraine’s administration of the city of Kherson, told Ukrainian television on Thursday that the Russian army was moving vehicles to the Antonivskiy Bridge. Lugova, which is now based in Ukrainian-held territory, described conditions in the city as brutal.
Kherson remains without electricity, heating and internet service, the city’s gas stations are closed and there is no fuel, she said. The city is also running out of drugs for cancer and diabetes patients. According to Ukrainian reports, the Russians blew up the local television center, some of the mobile phone towers and energy infrastructure.
Ukrainian officials were cautious at other times in declaring victories against a Russian force that, at least initially, was more armed and numerous than the Ukrainian armed forces.
Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukrainian Forum at international affairs think tank Chatham House, said the reluctance explains “why, until the Ukrainians are in the city, they don’t want to declare that they have control of it. “.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was equally cautious. He spoke with Zelenskyy on Thursday, and his office said they agreed “it’s right to continue to exercise caution until the Ukrainian flag is raised over the city.”
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday he believed a retreat was underway, but Russia had amassed up to 30,000 troops in Kherson and that a complete withdrawal could take several weeks.
An analyst noted that the Ukrainian army had destroyed bridges and roads as part of its counter-offensive, making it impossible to transfer Russian troops quickly across the Dnieper.
“The main question is whether the Ukrainians will give the Russians the chance to withdraw calmly or shoot them when crossing to the left bank,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov. “Personnel can be taken out on boats, but equipment should only be taken out on barges and pontoons, which is very easily pounded by the Ukrainian military.”
Putin’s allies rushed to defend the retreat as difficult, but necessary. However, pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov broke ranks and described the move as “Russia’s biggest geopolitical loss since the collapse of the Soviet Union” and warned that “the political consequences of this huge loss will be really significant.”
Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia. Raf Casert contributed from Brussels. Jill Lawless contributed from London. Andrew Katell contributed from New York.
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