Russia says it will retreat from key city of Kherson
By Dan Bilefsky, Marc Santora, Andrew E. Kramer and Ivan Nechepurenko
Russia’s defense minister announced on television Wednesday that he was ordering the retreat of Moscow’s forces from the strategically important southern city of Kherson, in a potential blow to President Vladimir Putin’s war effort. But Ukraine officials expressed skepticism that the Russians were going to fully withdraw.
The statement by Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, was made in a televised meeting with the military’s top brass, and it came after Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the commander for Russia’s forces in Ukraine, told Shoigu that the decision was “difficult” but that a withdrawal would “preserve lives of servicemen and combat readiness of forces.”
Standing in front of a lectern and pointing out troop movements on a map of Ukraine that was blurred, Surovikin cited Ukraine’s relentless shelling and the difficulty of maintaining crossing points and the potential flooding of the area as the main reasons for the pullout.
“Under these conditions, the city of Kherson and nearby settlements cannot be supplied in a fully-fledged manner,” he said. He added, “After a thorough assessment of the current situation, I offer to take up defense along the left bank of the Dnieper River.”
Shoigu responded, “Go ahead with the pullout of troops and take all measures to ensure safe transfer of troops, weapons and equipment to the other bank of the Dnieper River.”
Ukraine had warned that Russia might try to feign a retreat in hopes of drawing Ukraine into urban combat. The military had been tracking signs of a Russian retreat through Wednesday but was not convinced the Russian military intended to fully withdraw from Kherson city and the surrounding Russian bridgehead on the western bank of the Dnieper River, according to Roman Kostenko, a colonel in the army and chair of the defense and intelligence committee in Ukraine’s parliament.
“We have signs they are pulling out,” Kostenko said in a telephone interview. “They blew up bridges that would have allowed our forces to advance. We see them leaving population centers, but in some they leave soldiers behind to cover their movements.”
Ukrainian intelligence agencies were working to assess Russia’s movements, he said, and noted that the Russian announcement could be misdirection.
“We are watching,” Kostenko said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, was more circumspect and said the country was not relying on “staged TV statements” from the Russians.
“Actions speak louder than words,” he wrote on Twitter. “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight.”
He also told Reuters, “Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal.”
Deep anxiety about the announced withdrawal had coursed through the reports from influential Russian military bloggers throughout Wednesday.
“The decision is shocking to thousands and millions of people who are fighting for Russia, dying for Russia, believe in Russia and share the beliefs of the Russian world,” wrote Yuri Kotyonok, an influential blogger.
A retreat from the city of Kherson would be a major victory for Ukraine, which has long sought to recapture it and push Russian troops from the western bank of the Dnieper. It is the only regional capital to fall to Russian forces since they invaded in February, and the withdrawal would also be a humiliating rout for Putin, who Western intelligence officials said had rejected earlier requests from commanders that they be allowed to pull back.
A vital Black Sea port, Kherson fell to Russian control less than a week after the invasion. The shipbuilding city about 340 miles from Ukraine’s capital is an important node for access to the Black Sea and a gateway to Crimea. The Kherson region was also one of four that Putin illegally annexed in late September.
By Wednesday evening, Ukrainian soldiers had entered some front-line villages that had been under Russian control before Moscow’s forces withdrew earlier in the day, Kostenko said. Informants for the Ukrainian army were also reporting that Russian soldiers were leaving from towns and villages away from the front, he said.
“They are leaving step-by-step,” he said, moving heavy weaponry first while leaving a rear guard of infantry to cover the retreat. It was unclear whether Russian forces were still staffing newly fortified defensive positions around the city of Kherson, he said. “We don’t know how far we will move tomorrow,” he said of the Ukrainian military’s advance into areas abandoned by the Russians.