The Russian flag is lowered over the main administrative building in Kherson, Ukraine, but Ukrainian officials and war experts are not convinced surrender is near.
They suspect Russia is setting an elaborate trap, creating the illusion of surrender while simultaneously increasing reinforcements for a major battle ahead.
“The statements coming from Russia are contradictory. They seem very determined to convince everyone they’re going to leave, but what they’re doing doesn’t seem consistent with that,” said Branislav Slanchev, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who writes about the war.
The flag is just the latest sign of surrender from Russia in the city of Kherson, a key strategic position that is crucial to Russia’s aspirations to advance further west towards the main port of Odessa.
Russian officials based in Kherson have evacuated tens of thousands of civilians from the city and surrounding areas in recent weeks. Pro-Kremlin media reported that the withdrawal of Russian troops swept away bronze statues of 18th-century Russian commanders. And the occupation officials have moved their headquarters 50 miles to the southeast.
But at the same time, some 40,000 Russian troops are deployed on the west bank of the Dnieper in the city, more than ever before.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the administration installed by the Kremlin in Kherson, told state media on Thursday that these Russian troops will “most probably” leave for the east bank.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told an Italian newspaper last week that the move was a ruse.
“Their best-trained troops are in place. Nobody left. We see it and don’t believe them,” he said.
Ukraine has made piecemeal gains in the Kherson region in recent weeks as part of a massive fall counter-offensive that has seen considerable gains in the northeast. Ukrainian officials said they recaptured 100 towns and villages as they moved towards the region’s capital, which was the first major city to fall after the Russian invasion in February.
“Although there is a bit of commotion and movement, it is not decisive. It does not appear that the Russians have at this point entirely abandoned the city of Kherson,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russian analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Stepanenko said the group, which tracks daily movements in the conflict, observed Russia moving some military elements across the river. But the country is also setting up defensive positions northwest of the city, she added.
“The removal of a flag is not an indicator that the Russians are withdrawing from the city at this time,” Stepanenko said.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Military Command, said the obvious signs of surrender could be an attempt to convince Ukrainian forces that it is safe to move forward, “while [Russian forces] prepare for street battles,” Reuters reported.
“The occupants are clearly up to something!” writes Yevhen Ryschukthe mayor of the nearby town of Oleshky, adding that Russian troops have abandoned checkpoints in three settlements near Kherson and that the number of troops in the provincial capital has decreased.
“It is hard to believe that the enemies will simply take and leave Kherson, the only regional center they managed to capture. This is very important for Putin, so we are waiting, the occupiers are clearly coming up with a bloody plan,” Ryschuk added.
A resident of Kherson told the New York Times“I think they are withdrawing their personnel so that if the defensive lines break through, they can easily bombard the city,”
Sunny also said he suspected Russia wanted to drag Ukraine into a major battle for the city of Kherson.
“Kherson could be kind of an elaborate attempt to try to lure Ukrainian forces into an assault thinking it might be easy and then it won’t be and then they’ll have to send in reinforcements,” Slanchev said.
With more Ukrainian forces concentrated in Kherson, Russia could have more success in theaters such as Bakhmut, where Wagner Group forces have pounded Ukrainian positions – which have so far held the line – for weeks.
However, if Ukraine manages to encircle Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnieper, it will only be a matter of time before Moscow must surrender or find a way to break through and resupply or replace the tens of thousands Russians stationed there.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressed optimism at a press conference Thursday that Ukrainian forces will liberate the city, but did not respond to questions about whether he thought the Russian forces were withdrawing.
“On the question of whether or not the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the west side of the Dnieper in Kherson, I certainly believe they have the ability to do so,” Austin said. “More importantly, the Ukrainians believe they have the ability to do this.”