Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on Wednesday that Russian troops would retreat from the strategic city of Kherson in Ukraine’s south, which would signal another embarrassing blow for the Kremlin’s war effort.
In a televised address, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, said Moscow was unable to supply the tens of thousands of soldiers in the city, forcing them to retreat and cross to the east bank of the Dnipier River, ceding a strategic western gateway.
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“We will save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right (western) bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts,” Surovikin said, according to Reuters.
However, Kyiv expressed skepticism on Wednesday, with an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saying some Russian units remained in the city.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak. “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight. A part of the ru-group is preserved in the city, and additional reserves are charged to the region. [Ukraine] is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.”
Russia had shown signs of surrender in recent days, with a Russian flag coming down from the main administrative building in the region. However, Ukrainian officials and war experts suspected Russia was setting a trap.
Occupying officials in the city have overseen forced evacuations of nearly 100,000 residents in the city in recent weeks.
John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum, said Russia appeared to have calculated that leaving tens of thousands troops cut off in Kherson could be disastrous.
“To see tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, POWs on the news around the world would have been significant,” he said.
Spencer said Kherson would be both a political and strategic loss for Russia, showing that its military cannot hold up to Ukraine’s western-supplied firepower.
The city is strategically positioned north of Crimea — supplying water to the peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014 — and east of the crucial port city of Odessa.
Moscow appears to be moving to establish a new front line east of the Dnieper, where it will seek to defend occupied cities such as Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol, Spencer said.
Ukrainian forces had been closing in on the city for weeks, reportedly liberating more than 100 towns and villages in the surrounding region amid an autumn counteroffensive.
Kherson was the first major city seized by Russia after its invasion in February, and remained the only regional capital occupied by Moscow’s forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced martial law in Kherson last month, along with three other regions that Russia illegally annexed in September.
However, Ukraine continued to make steady advances in the region and was preparing for a major battle to take the capital city.
Updated 12:26 p.m.