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LONDON — Russia has prepared the groundwork for withdrawing its troops from Kherson, the largest Ukrainian city its forces have held since February’s invasion, a Western official said.
In recent weeks, the Ukrainian army has made “spectacular” progress in its campaign to retake territory held by Russians, who have been forced to move to a more defensive position and are “crucially low on ammunition,” the official said Thursday.
Russia is now believed to have temporarily increased its forces near Kherson to cover a retreat to the east bank of the Dnipro River, and has also ordered civilians to evacuate from occupied territories on the west bank.
“We are confident from our previous warnings that there are prospects of a Russian military withdrawal from its bridgehead in Kherson,” the official said. “Planning is almost certainly well advanced.”
Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Kherson administration based in Moscow, said Russian state television said Thursday Russian troops could cross the Dnipro in the coming days.
“Most likely, our units, our troops will go to the left-bank part of the Kherson region,” he said.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was also optimistic about Ukraine’s upcoming advances.
“Regarding whether or not the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the western side of the Dnieper in Kherson, I certainly believe they can,” Austin said at a news conference. “Most importantly, Ukrainians believe they can do it. We have seen them make a very methodical but effective effort to reclaim their territory.”
The following Thursday, rumors circulated about a possible Russian withdrawal from the city of Kherson Pictures have been posted on social media platforms, the Russian flag was missing from the city’s main administration building. However, footage on the Telegram channel showed Russian flags waving from other official buildings.
Caution should be exercised with these reports by the Ukrainian authorities.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Military Command, said it could be a Russian “trick”.
“This could be a provocation to give the impression that settlements have been abandoned, that it is safe to enter,” she told Ukrainian television. “Considering that they have long been preparing for street fighting, how to position their units, we are aware of the planned tactics and should not be in a hurry to rejoice.”
The western official warned that any decision to withdraw “is more about the Russians making long-term strategic decisions about where best to defend, to be effective, to maintain their own stockpiles of ammunition, to maintain their troop levels and to focus on.” to stop the winter.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-backed Kherson government | AFP via Getty Images
“I think after their judgment they decided that it was not worth fighting for the city of Kherson, that this river’s natural defensive barrier is extremely valuable to them.”
Kherson Oblast is one of four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed by Russia after mock referendums last month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to present any withdrawal as an evacuation rather than a retreat. Russian special forces could continue to operate on the west bank of the river even after a withdrawal, the official warned.
In Kherson “it is likely that most of the squadrons [Russian] The command has now retreated across the river, leaving demoralized and leaderless men under Ukrainian attack,” the official added.
Any withdrawal would likely trigger a further surge in criticism of Putin’s leadership from Russian nationalists and hurt his credibility, the official added.
A Russian withdrawal from Kherson would boost morale in Kyiv and across Ukraine. However, it is unlikely that this winter Ukrainian forces will be able to retake the Crimean Peninsula, which has been occupied by Russian troops since 2014 and also illegally annexed.
The weather will soon become rainier and frostier, which is likely to slow down fighting, and Ukrainians would still have to cross the Dnipro River and face a well-fortified Russian defense line on their way to Crimea, the official said.