Russia plans to pull out of the city of Kherson, portraying it as a civilian evacuation, Western officials said today.
Putin’s troops are preparing to retreat, officials said, after moving conscripts into the city to cover the backs of fleeing soldiers and beefing up defenses on the other side of the Dnipro River.
Although a final call has not yet been made, officials believe Russian commanders have decided that Kherson “is not worth defending” and that fleeing to better positions across the Dnipro will improve their chances of surviving the winter.
They were speaking as footage emerged from Kherson showing a Russian flag that had been flying over City Hall for months has suddenly disappeared.
Meanwhile, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, head of Russia’s Central Military District who is now said to be in charge of defense in the Donbas, has been “probably” fired.
Russia has removed a flag from the top of the city hall in Kherson as Western officials say commanders are in advanced stages of planning a withdrawal
If the withdrawal happens, Russia will try to play it off as an evacuation to protect civilians, officials said (file photo, Ukrainian HIMARS in the region).
It comes after General Lapin was heavily criticized by both Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin loyalists and hardliners, over alleged mistakes since the start of the war.
General Lapin was the last commander who ordered Russian forces across the border with Ukraine in February to remain in office.
If his departure is confirmed, it would speak to a power shift within the Kremlin, away from the Defense Ministry and towards warlords like Kadyrov – Chechen dictator – and Prigozhin – founder of Wagner.
News of Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson follows weeks of claims about the situation there – with Russia suggesting the city is on the verge of falling while Ukraine insists Putin is stepping it up.
The situation is complicated by a near-total blackout of frontline Ukrainian forces as they attempt to breach Russian defenses.
Two weeks ago, there was hope that the city was on the verge of liberation when General Surovikin – head of Russia’s forces in Ukraine – warned of a “tense” situation and began evacuating civilians.
But as days passed with no sign of a Ukrainian breakthrough, Kyiv began to report that wet weather and mud were hampering its advance.
Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, then gave an interview in which he said Russia was sending reinforcements to the city and planning to defend it.
He confidently predicted that Kiev’s forces would drive out the Russians, but said it would take until the end of this month.
Amid the conflicting reports, some have suggested that Moscow is playing a disinformation game aimed at lure Ukraine into a death trap.
Vladimir Putin (right) has “probably” fired Colonel-General Alexander Lapin (left), the commander said to be in charge of defense in the Donbas
Workers clear debris from the road in front of a destroyed camp complex in the recently recaptured village of Arkhangelske, Kherson Oblast
Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity on Thursday, tried to clarify the situation by saying Russia was planning an “orderly, well-planned and deliberate” withdrawal to the east bank of the Dnipro.
Russia’s commanders have already crossed the river, they added, leaving behind a force of regular troops – mostly conscripts – to confront the Ukrainians.
However, they refused to say when the withdrawal might take place, admitting that Ukraine’s progress has been “slow” – which is likely to slow even further as wetter weather turns the ground to mud.
Losing the city of Kherson — the only regional capital Russian forces have captured since February — would be the most humiliating loss Putin has suffered to date.
It’s also the capital of the wider Kherson region, which he recently annexed from Russia and vowed to use “all forces” to defend it.
That has sparked fears it could use Russia’s nuclear arsenal, although Western officials said they haven’t seen any signs of it yet.
If Kherson falls, Putin is likely to come under massive pressure within Russia.
The final retreat – a disorderly path in Kharkiv – saw harsh criticism of his generals for failing to hold the territory and led to the declaration of mobilization.
This order, in turn, sparked protests across Russia and caused hundreds of thousands to flee the country, further worsening Putin’s situation.
The loss of Kherson would also open the door for Ukraine to launch an offensive against Crimea, the jewel in Putin’s imperialist crown.
Annexed during his last invasion in 2014, the peninsula has become a symbol of Putin’s personal prowess and power as Russia’s leader.
Losing control of it would be catastrophic – not just for his invasion but for his rule over Russia and could see him ousted from power.