Russians says it’s withdrawing from Kherson. But is it true?

Less than six weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced with much fanfare that the strategic southern province of Kherson, along with three other war-torn Ukrainian regions, would be annexed and would now be part of Russia “forever”.

On Wednesday, in what would mark one of the most momentous setbacks of a conflict already riddled with humiliating losses for Moscow, Russia announced that its forces would evacuate the region’s capital – the city of Kherson – which was hit in the early hours of March 24. February was occupied large-scale invasion of Ukraine. It was the only regional capital that the Russians had captured.

If confirmed, the announced withdrawal from Kherson — a key industrial port and a key gateway to Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and the Crimean peninsula that Russia captured in 2014 — would stand alongside the most consequential battlefield failures of Putin’s forces in nearly nine months of war.

Included in this pantheon of high-profile casualties is the thwarted attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv, early in the war; the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s vaunted Black Sea Fleet, in April; the September defeat of Russian forces in the northeastern province of Kharkiv, in which Ukrainian forces retook thousands of square miles of territory in a matter of days; and a chaotic mobilization of hundreds of thousands of recruits, many of whom with little training and outdated equipment were quickly hurled to the front lines.

But Russia has spent weeks making confusing and sometimes conflicting statements about its intentions in Kherson, and many in Ukraine feared the announcement was a ruse aimed at trapping and trapping Ukrainian forces, which for weeks had been waging a slow but relentless offensive in the country Drive south front.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote on Twitter. “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight.”

Podolyak said Ukraine will conduct its own intelligence assessment of the situation rather than take Russia’s word. In Kyiv, Zelenskyy huddled together with high-ranking military advisers.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization also expressed skepticism about the withdrawal. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who was in London for talks with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, told reporters: “Of course we will wait and see what actually happens on the ground” in the city.

Even so, Western military analysts had pointed to signs in recent days that Russia appeared to be preparing some sort of repositioning in Kherson – presumably to avoid a chaotic retreat like the one in Kharkiv two months ago – as Russian units threw away their uniforms and left military vehicles on the ground Fleeing from advancing Ukrainian forces.

A Russian withdrawal from Kherson would dramatically change the dynamics of the southern front. Russia had used its influence in the city – which had a population of nearly 300,000 before the war – to threaten the entire Black Sea coast, including the coastal jewel of Odessa just 90 miles away and the Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv, believed to be a vital bulwark against western Moscow advances armed forces.

For months, Ukrainian troops have been bombarding positions outside of Kherson with rockets fired from sophisticated US-supplied HIMARS launchers. Ukrainian strikes also destroyed a main bridge over the Dnieper, cut off a main road for a possible retreat, and forced Russia to use vulnerable pontoon bridges and ferries as supply links instead.

Adding to pressure on supply lines, the bridge over the Kerch Strait, which connects mainland Russia with Crimea, a way station to Kherson, was damaged in a massive blast last month. Ukraine has not officially accepted responsibility.

As with other humiliating setbacks during the war, the apparent loss of Kherson could increase domestic pressure on Putin as hardliners demand even more brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilians in retaliation.

However, analysts have also pointed to the Russian leader’s tendency to double down when faced with obstacles to his plans, such as his internationally rejected announcement of the annexation of Kherson province along with Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Lukansk regions, just like his Troops in the northeast are suffering heavy blows on the battlefield.

The seemingly choreographed announcement of Kherson’s withdrawal came from Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who said on state television Moscow’s forces would be moved to defensive lines on the east side of the broad Dnieper. Kherson is on the opposite bank.

Shoigu’s somewhat stilted announcement was preceded by a televised confirmation from General Sergei Surovikin, who said that with supply lines largely shut down, it was no longer possible to provide Russia’s troops with ammunition, food and other essential supplies.

Western military analysts have consistently said that Russia pays little heed to the lives of its own troops, who have suffered appalling casualties along a battlefront stretching hundreds of kilometers from southeast to northeast Ukraine. However, Surovikin explained that the move was intended to “preserve what is most important – the lives of our soldiers” – an emphatic pious assessment echoed by his boss Shoigu, along with an expression of concern for the safety of civilians.

Russia has allegedly evacuated around 100,000 city dwellers to the east bank of the Dnieper for their own protection in recent weeks. The Russian flag disappeared from the main administration building and other places. Russian-backed authorities are even said to have spirited away the remains of Grigory Potemkin, the princely Russian general and the city’s founder, in the 18th century.

Ukrainian officials said Russia had looted the city and its environs, suggesting an impending withdrawal dismantled cell phone towers. This week, Ukraine’s military reported that a Russian convoy was driving across a road on a large embankment – one of the few river crossings near the city – laden with “household appliances and building materials”.

During the months under Russian occupation, horrific stories have leaked out of those who managed to escape to Ukrainian-controlled areas. Activists and officials have “disappeared” and been tortured, human rights groups say, as Russia tried to tighten controls by demanding that Ukrainians living in Kherson use Russian rubles and accept Russian passports.

In a suitably cryptic development, the withdrawal announcement came on the same day that Russian authorities said Moscow’s second official in the city, a Ukrainian named Kirill Stremousov, had been killed in a car crash. There were widespread doubts about the circumstances surrounding the death of such a prominent Kremlin mouthpiece among Ukrainians who saw Stremousov as a traitor. Russians says it’s withdrawing from Kherson. But is it true?

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