Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday ordered his troops to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River near the strategic southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, a significant setback for Moscow and potential turning point in the war.
Ukraine reacted with caution to the announcement, saying some Russian forces were still in Kherson and additional Russian manpower was being sent to the region.
“Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a statement to Reuters.
Kherson city was the only regional capital Russia had captured after its invasion in February, and it has been the focus of a Ukrainian counteroffensive because it controls both the only land route to the Crimea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 and the mouth of the Dnipro, the river that bisects Ukraine. Russian-installed officials have been evacuating tens of thousands of civilians in recent weeks.
Kherson region is one of four that President Vladimir Putin declared in September he was incorporating into Russia “forever,” and which Moscow said had been placed under its nuclear umbrella.
In televised comments, General Sergei Surovikin, in overall command of the war, reported to Mr. Shoigu that it was no longer possible to supply Kherson city. He said he proposed to take up defensive lines on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
Mr. Shoigu told Gen. Surovikin: “I agree with your conclusions and proposals. For us, the life and health of Russian servicemen is always a priority. We must also take into account the threats to the civilian population.
“Proceed with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnipro River.”
A regular evening statement by the Ukrainian military on Wednesday made no direct reference to Kherson region or its capital. Russian forces shelled more than 25 towns and villages on the southern front along the line of contact, it said, and there were more than 50 drone reconnaissance missions.
Ukrainian legislator David Arakhamia, who led Kyiv’s delegation to peace talks early in Russia’s invasion, said, however, that a military operation in the Kherson region was under way.
“It is bound to succeed … When the goals are achieved in the south, Ukrainians will hear about it from our officials, not from Shoigu,” Mr. Arakhamia said on the Telegram messaging app.
He described the Russians’ situation as critical and said “sooner or later, they will either leave Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Sevastopol [in Crimea] or be destroyed.”
If Ukrainian forces take the entire west bank of the Dnipro, their U.S.-supplied long-range artillery and HIMARS multiple rocket launchers would be able to strike Russian logistics bases and positions on the east bank defending the approaches to the Crimea peninsula, according to military experts.
But the Ukrainians may face numerous booby traps and could be targeted by intense Russian artillery barrages.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on a visit to London, welcomed the news from Kherson, but also struck a note of caution.
“We should not underestimate Russia, they still have capabilities,” he told Sky News. “We have seen the drones, we have seen the missile attacks, it shows that Russia can still inflict a lot of damage.”
Compounding the sense of Russian disarray in Kherson, Moscow’s number two official there, Kirill Stremousov, was killed on Wednesday in what Moscow said was a car crash.
Mr. Stremousov was one of the most prominent faces of Russia’s occupation. Ukraine viewed him as a collaborator and a traitor.
Russia’s leading war hawks on Wednesday swiftly voiced support for the decision to abandon Kherson city, putting a brave face on one of Moscow’s most humiliating retreats in nearly nine months of war.
“After weighing all the pros and cons, General Surovikin made the difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers,” said Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who has frequently urged a more aggressive approach to the war and has even called for the use of low-grade nuclear weapons.
The pullout announcement had been anticipated by Russia’s influential war bloggers.
“Apparently we will leave the city, no matter how painful it is to write about it now,” said the War Gonzo blog, which has more than 1.3 million subscribers on Telegram.
“In simple terms, Kherson can’t be held with bare hands,” it said. “Yes, this is a black page in the history of the Russian army. Of the Russian state. A tragic page.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up.
Photos on the internet showed the span of the Darivka bridge on the main highway east out of Kherson completely collapsed into the Inhulets River, a tributary of the Dnipro. Reuters verified the location of the images.
Ukrainians who posted photos of the destroyed bridge speculated that it had been blown up by Russian troops in preparation for a retreat.
Further east, in Novoolexandrivka, a village on a hilly bank of the Dnipro in territory recaptured by Ukrainian troops last month, the thunder of near constant rocket and artillery fire echoed on Wednesday from the front 10 kilometres away.
“We’re kicking them off this bank and we will kick them off the other bank,” said Oleh, a Ukrainian soldier.
Since pulling out, the Russians have pounded the area every day, villagers and soldiers said. Around a third of residents, some 230 people, have stayed behind.