Russia’s evacuation of civilians from southern Ukraine betrays Kremlin concern

Russian President Vladimir Poutine has illegally annexed territoryattacked civilian targets, called the military reservists and threatened nuclear escalation. But the Kremlin still does not seem convinced that its army can hold back a Ukrainian counter-offensive before winter.

Civilians in the country’s occupied south should evacuate to Russia, Moscow-based officials urged this week, in a sign the Kremlin is worried about its grip on the strategic region as Kyiv pushes to reclaim more land there. low after recent breakthroughs.

The head of the regional administration appointed by Moscow, Vladimir Saldo, without using the word “evacuation”, on Thursday asked Moscow to welcome families from the Kherson region who want to “protect themselves” from what he described like constant Ukrainian bombardments.

The Kremlin quickly agreed to support these efforts, officials in Russia’s southern Rostov region said the first arrivals were expected on Friday, the official Tass news agency reported. reported.

Western military analysts said the move underscored Russia’s growing concern over its ability to hold Kherson, just weeks after claiming annex the region and in the light of sudden gains made by the Ukrainian army this month – its biggest advance in the south since Russian forces seized it at the start of the war.

“You don’t evacuate from an area that you’ve recently (illegally) annexed if you’re sure you’re keeping it,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “I think we can read this as a sign that they are very worried about their ability to hold the western bank of the Dnieper.”

Ukrainian soldiers check the trenches left behind as Russian forces fled on Wednesday.Leo Correa / AP

As Ukraine continued, Russian forces withdrew from the front lines they had established in the area and sought to establish new positions they could hold along the strategic waterway.

Just hours after Saldo’s comments, the deputy head of the Russian-installed administration in Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, was quick to clarify that this was not an evacuation but an offer that was slow to be made.

“No one is planning to retreat,” he said in a video message, as he urged people not to panic.

Preparing to evacuate some civilians could mean the Russians anticipate fighting could spread to the city of Kherson itself, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in its statement. Evaluation of the situation on Thursday.

The city is a strategic gateway to the Black Sea and the neighboring Crimean Peninsula, and played a critical role in cement the grip of Moscow on the area. It is the only regional center controlled by the Russians since the beginning of the war.

Losing Kherson would be a blow to the Kremlin, with Putin himself boasting of having been “united” with Russia forever after the region became one of four occupied provinces Russia claimed to have annexed last month.

Kyiv has been hitting Russian military sites and installations in the region for several months, according to its defense officials, as it prepares for its much-vaunted counteroffensive. But Russian state media reported that the strikes also damaged civilian structures and some succeeded in civilian casualties. NBC News could not verify the claims.

After making initial gains in the region earlier this month, Ukraine’s advance seems to have slowed down. Kyiv said it released some 75 colonies in the region over the past month, with even more settlements be released this week. NBC News could not verify these figures.

It’s hard to assess what’s really happening on the ground in Kherson, analysts said, but Kyiv appears to be engaged in a sort of “boa constrictor strategy” in the region, said Neil Melvin, director of research studies. international security at Royal United. Services Institute, a London-based think tank. “Ukraine is gradually tightening its grip on this region, and so the Russians are now faced with the reality that they will lose Kherson, probably within the next few weeks.”

Russia has some of its best-trained troops in that region, Melvin added, so it could hold out longer, “but I think we’re starting to see signs that the Russian forces there have real problems.” he added.

Konrad Muzyka, the director of Poland-based Rochan Consulting, which specializes in Russia and Belarus, agreed, calling Russian positions north of the river “indefensible”.

“The Russians will have to withdraw,” added Muzyka. “The only question is when.”

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressed confidence on Wednesday that the Ukrainian offensive in the south and east get through the winter. The head of the Ukrainian army, General Valeriy Zaluzhny, sworn Friday that “nothing and no one” can stop Ukraine.

A pan with old food is seen in a makeshift kitchen in a trench dug by Russian soldiers.Leo Correa / AP

The optimism of Kyiv and its allies comes as Russia’s grip on the neighboring Crimean peninsula, annexed in 2014, suffered a high-profile blow.

A key bridge connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland was damaged last week in what Moscow called a ‘terrorist attack’ by Ukraine, in retaliation by a wave of deadly airstrikes on the towns of its neighbors a few days later.

The bridge, a personal project of Putin, must be repaired no later than July 2023, a government document published on Friday suggested – an extended timeline that calls into question Moscow’s ability to use the key route to supply troops in the south.

Faced with growing domestic criticism, Putin stepped up his rhetoric in response to Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield and the attack on the bridge.

A weakened grip on Kherson could push it further, although Western analysts underline Friday that Russian troops had made “tactical advances” in an area of ​​eastern Ukraine.

With the onset of winter, Ukraine’s ability to push its counteroffensive will be tested, Melvin said, but for the Russians the challenge will be whether launching into combat newly mobilized and poorly trained recruits as conditions worsen will further lower morale and weaken their ability to fight in the south.

“If Kherson falls, there will be a time when Ukraine could potentially make further breakthroughs,” Mevin said. “The Russians want to avoid this. But if the Kherson front collapses, then much of southern Ukraine will be open by then, which could be a time when we could see even greater change.

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