Ukrainian forces advance after Russia orders Kherson retreat
By Marc Santora
Ukrainian troops were advancing in the south Thursday after Russia’s announcement of a retreat from the strategic port city of Kherson. Ukraine claimed to recapture a dozen settlements in the region, even as military officials said they could not be sure that Moscow’s forces were indeed withdrawing from the city.
A day after Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, ordered the withdrawal of Russian forces from the west bank of the Dnieper River in Kherson, it was unclear how many of the estimated 40,000 soldiers sent by Moscow to the region remained, how far along they were in their retreat and whether a contingent had been left behind to fight in the city. Ukrainian officials said Moscow’s announcement of a withdrawal from the capital of the Kherson region could be a trap meant to lure their forces into brutal urban combat.
Still, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander of the Ukrainian military, said his forces continued “conducting offensive operations,” and in a separate statement the military said it had recaptured 12 settlements in the Kherson region in the past day, reclaiming about 60 square miles.
Videos posted by Ukrainian officials on social media purported to show Ukrainian soldiers standing in front of a tank and their country’s yellow-and-blue flag in one newly reclaimed village in the south, although the footage could not immediately be verified independently.
The Ukrainian military’s southern command said in a statement Thursday that its forces were confronting mines and roadblocks laid by Russian forces. There were explosions across the region overnight, with the Ukrainian military saying it had hit a Russian command post, a column of military equipment and ammunition depots.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, said on Twitter that Russian forces had mined “everything they can” in Kherson city, including apartments and sewers.
The Ukrainians have warned for days that Russian soldiers in the city were changing into civilian clothes, moving into houses and fortifying positions outside the city.
The loss of Kherson, where tattered billboards have proclaimed that “Russia is here forever,” would be one of the most serious blows of the war for President Vladimir Putin of Russia. It was only a little over a month ago that he took to a stage in Red Square in Moscow to declare Kherson and three other regions in Ukraine part of the Russian nation. His move to illegally annex parts of Ukraine was condemned around the world.
Military analysts said they believed Russia would try to maintain defensive positions near the banks of the Dnieper River to protect its withdrawal route. With only one major road over a dam north of the city left to the Russians, they have relied on a series of ferries and pontoons to move back and forth across the river.
“With limited crossing points, Russian forces will be vulnerable in crossing the Dnieper River,” Britain’s defense intelligence agency said Thursday. “It is likely that the withdrawal will take place over several days with defensive positions and artillery fires covering withdrawing forces.”
Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that 20,000 to 30,000 Russian troops would need to be withdrawn to south and east of the river, and that the retreat would be slow if Moscow went through with it.
“It won’t take them a day or two,” he said. “This is going to take them days and perhaps even weeks to pull those forces south of that river.”
About 80 miles north of Kherson city, there was joy. Alla Torchanska, a local official in Dudchany, said Wednesday that after weeks of fighting all around her home, the Ukrainians had managed to retake the village.
“For a month, our village was divided by the front line,” she said by telephone. “Today, the Ukrainian forces finally took the entire village under their control. It’s such a blessing.”