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Ukraine cautious over Russia’s Kherson exit as army advances

Ukrainian soldiers ride on a Self-propelled artillery 2S1 Gvozdika outside Bakhmut on November 9, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
November 14, 2022

Kyiv expressed caution about Russia’s announcement its troops are abandoning the Ukrainian city of Kherson, the first major regional center seized in its invasion, in what would be a highly symbolic reverse for President Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine’s General Staff said Thursday it couldn’t confirm or deny a pullback after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered troops to withdraw from the western bank of the Dnipro River and move to the other shore.

Ukrainian troops have advanced 7 kilometers (4 miles) in two directions in Kherson region over the past 24 hours, liberating 12 towns and more than 260 square kilometers of territory, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces said on Telegram. “The likely pullout from Kherson is the result of our active operations,” he wrote.

Russia is moving weapons, equipment and units, but their forces still remain on the western bank of Dnipro river in Kherson, military spokeswoman Nataliya Humeniuk said on TV.

After Ukraine’s forces cut off their supply lines and pressured them at the front in the area, Russian troops and occupation authorities had been pulling out of Kherson and across the river for the last several weeks.

If confirmed, a Russian retreat from the city would be the latest major setback for the President Vladimir Putin in his nine-month-old invasion. Kherson was the only regional capital to fall to Russian troops and was included in the territories Putin illegally annexed in September. He vowed at the time that they would be Russian forever.

“We have to see how the situation on the ground develops in the coming days, but what is clear is that Russia is under heavy pressure and if they leave Kherson, it would be another victory for Ukraine,” Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said in Rome.

Putin has so far made no public comment on the retreat, leaving the announcement to Shoigu.

Russian officials sought to portray the pullback as an effort to protect troops’ lives, but military bloggers who’ve covered the war closely from the front lines were dismayed.

“In the eyes of the population, it’s a defeat,” said a telegram channel known as Rybar with 1.1 million subscribers. It blamed “political and military impotence.”

Ukrainian officials said the pullout was forced by their army’s continuing advances. Still, there were concerns that Russia might try to feign a retreat in hopes of drawing Ukraine into urban combat.

Residents in the city of Kherson reported that while Russian roadblocks had been abandoned, some forces remain. “People see that they are still there,” Halyna Lugova, head of the Ukraine-appointed Kherson city military administration said in a video briefing. “As of today I wouldn’t rush with concluding that this is just about to happen,” she said of the announced retreat.

Western intelligence had reported in recent days that the pullback appeared genuine and that Russia appeared to be trying to ensure it took place in an organized way, avoiding the chaotic retreats seen earlier.

“It is likely that the withdrawal will take place over several days with defensive positions and artillery fires covering withdrawing forces,” the UK Defence Ministry said Thursday.

“Russia is not doing well militarily and for that reason they are looking for possibilities for a pause, and this pause should not be given,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told a government briefing.

Western military commentators said the Russian withdrawal appeared to be real, and likely means that Russia’s military will dig into defensive positions that would make it harder for Ukraine to achieve more territorial gains as winter sets in.

“This consolidation might also prolong the war,” said Mick Ryan, a military strategist and retired Australian army general. “With less territory to defend and coupled with an influx of mobilized troops, Surovikin can rebuild battered combat and support units,” Ryan said in a Twitter thread, referring to Sergei Surovikin, the Russian general recently appointed to lead the Ukraine war.


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