Russia has ordered a withdrawal from key southern city of Khersonthe only regional capital it has captured since the February invasion, in a dramatic strategic setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the face of Ukrainian advances in the region, Russian troops in the Kherson region will withdraw from the western bank of the Dnipro River, an area that includes the city of Kherson, Russian state media reported on Wednesday.
The order came during a meeting in Moscow between Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, as Ukrainian forces approach the city from two directions.
The Russian withdrawal would represent the most significant military moment of the war since Ukrainian forces swept through the northern Kharkiv region in September.
Ukrainian officials, however, remained skeptical that Russian forces had completely left the West Bank.
“Action speaks louder than words. We see no sign that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” tweeted Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in the president’s office.
Ukraine “liberates territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements,” Podolyak added.
Defending occupied territory on the west bank of Kherson had become increasingly difficult for the Russians as Ukrainian forces disabled bridges over the Dnipro and attacked Russian supply lines.
Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed by Russia in September. Once the withdrawal is complete, several thousand square kilometers of this annexed territory will have been ceded.
The withdrawal “demonstrates the courage, determination, commitment of the Ukrainian Armed Forces as well as the importance of continued support” from the West, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Surovikin said that “Kherson [city] and adjacent settlements under current conditions cannot be fully supplied and functioning.
Surovikin claimed that Ukrainian forces are “attacking schools, hospitals and civilians in Kherson, who are being evacuated across the Dnipro river”.
Surovikin, who warned that tough choices would be needed when he was appointed overall commander of the operation, said: “The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation successfully resisted the offensive attempts of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Kherson direction. ”
He claimed that “from August to October, the Ukrainian Armed Forces lost more than 9,500 people in Kherson”, a number which he said was seven to eight times greater than Russian losses. It is impossible to verify Surovikin’s assertion.
Meanwhile, Russian journalists in northern Kherson described withdrawals from some areas.
A major Russian Telegram channel, with more than a million subscribers, reported ‘there was a withdrawal to safeguard positions’, near the West Bank town of Snihurivka, which is in the neighboring region from Mykolaiv.
“A bridge was also destroyed by our forces in this area today,” RVVoenkor channel reported.
He added: “Ukrainian sources published a photo with their flag raised at Snihurivka station. The colony is under their control.
CNN geotagged the photograph of the flag on a tower in Snihurivka.
The channel also said that the Ukrainians had entered a nearby village (Kalynivske) and that “the front line is moving steadily towards Kherson”.
Another Russian military journalist, Alexander Kots, said on Telegram that after “receiving several urgent recommendations to cross the east bank” from the city of Kherson, he decided to take two Russian flags from the departing ferry “so that those who mock our state symbols would not get them.
Kots added, “One was taken from the flagpole of the city council…..I will hold the state flag until we return. So I can hang it up.