Russia ordered its troops to withdraw from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine on Wednesday in a further major blow to its campaign amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Officials in Kyiv reacted with caution, saying the Russian army was unlikely to leave the strategic city without a fight, while US President Joe Biden suggested the retreat was evidence Moscow has “real problems” on the battlefield.
“Begin to pull out troops,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a televised meeting with Russia’s commander in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin.
The commander had proposed the “difficult decision” of pulling back from the city and setting up defences on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
Kherson city was the first urban hub captured by Russia during its “special military operation” and the only regional capital controlled by Moscow’s forces since the offensive began on 24 February.
Ukraine’s troops have for weeks been capturing villages en route to the city near the Black Sea, and Kremlin-installed leaders in Kherson have been pulling out civilians.
In Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his army was “moving very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk, in the interests of liberating all our land and so that the losses are as small as possible.”
“The enemy does not give us gifts, does not make ‘goodwill gestures’, we win it all,” Zelensky said in his daily address to the nation, adding any gains by Ukraine come at the expense of “lives lost by our heroes.”
Presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said some Russian troops remained in the city.
“We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” he said on Twitter.
And some Ukrainian civilians, too, were sceptical.
Andriy Orikhovskyi, a 46-year-old financier, told AFP in Kyiv: “The Russian leadership is playing something, you shouldn’t trust them... I think they are up to something. We have to wait for what our official sources say.”
115,000 civilians removed
In Moscow, Kremlin supporters rushed to justify the decision.
The head of Russian state media group RT, Margarita Simonyan, said the retreat was necessary in order not to leave Russian troops exposed on the west bank of the Dnipro River and “open the way to Crimea”.
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov said the decision was “difficult but fair”.
Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is the founder of the Wagner mercenary group and has been critical of Russia’s military strategy in the campaign, was more ambiguous.
“It is important not to agonise, not to beat around in paranoia, but to draw conclusions and work on mistakes,” his press service wrote on social media.
Russia losing the Kherson region would return Ukraine important access to the Sea of Azov and leave President Vladimir Putin with little to show from a campaign that has turned him into a pariah in Western eyes.
The retreat will put pressure on Russian control of the rest of the Kherson region, which forms a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions that Russia declared it had annexed in September, shortly after being forced to withdraw from swathes of territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
The announcement of the retreat came just hours after officials said the Moscow-installed deputy head of the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, a key supporter of annexation, had died in a car crash.
As Ukrainian troops have gradually advanced in the south, Surovikin told Shoigu on Wednesday that some 115,000 people had been removed from the western bank of the Dnipro, which includes Kherson city.
Ukraine has defined these population movements towards Russia or Russian-occupied territory as “deportations”.
‘Strong bipartisan support’
In Washington, where election officials were still counting votes after Tuesday’s crucial midterms, Biden said the retreat from Kherson demonstrated Moscow military weaknesses.
“It’s evidence of the fact that they have some real problems, Russia, the Russian military,” Biden told reporters in Washington.
Biden’s Democratic Party looked set to narrowly lose control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans, some of whom have vowed to review US military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But Biden vowed that Washington’s support of Kyiv will remain unchanged.
“In the area of foreign policy I hope we’ll continue this bipartisan approach of confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” Biden added.
Earlier in the day NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg spoke along the same lines. “It’s absolutely clear that there’s strong bipartisan support in the United States for a continued support for Ukraine, and that’s not changed,” Stoltenberg said after talks with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
With the Russian offensive now in its ninth month, Western powers have stepped up military and financial support for Kyiv.
In the latest announcement, the European Commission on Wednesday proposed an 18-billion-euro ($18-billion) aid package for Ukraine in 2023 in the form of loans.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the aid as “true solidarity”.
The Kremlin said that relations between Moscow and Washington would remain “bad” after the US midterm elections.
“Our existing ties are bad, and they will remain bad,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.