Russia’s defense minister said Wednesday that Moscow’s troops were retreating from the key southern Ukraine city of Kherson, although Ukrainian officials expressed skepticism that a full withdrawal was underway from the lone regional capital Russia had captured since it invaded in February.
Such a withdrawal would be a major setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Defense chief Sergei Shoigu made the announcement in a televised meeting with Russia’s top military leaders as General Sergei Surovikin, the commander for Russia’s forces in Ukraine, told Shoigu the withdrawal decision was difficult but would “preserve lives of servicemen and combat readiness of forces.”
Ukrainian advances had put Kyiv’s forces within striking distance of Kherson.
“Under these conditions,” Surovikin said, “the city of Kherson and nearby settlements cannot be supplied in a fully fledged manner. After a thorough assessment of the current situation, I offer to take up defense along the left bank of the Dnipro River.”
Shoigu responded, “Go ahead with the pullout of troops and take all measures to ensure safe transfer of troops, weapons and equipment to the other bank of the Dnipro River.”
But Ukraine was initially skeptical of the Russian retreat, suggesting it might be a Russian ruse for an ambush of Ukrainian troops.
“Actions speak louder than words,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, adding that he expected some Russian forces to remain in Kherson. He said Ukraine would declare the city freed from Russian control based on its own intelligence, not televised Russian statements.
Meanwhile, the Eastern European countries of Slovakia and Hungary said they were preparing for an increase in the number of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine in the coming months as winter approaches.
Russia has targeted power and heating plants in Ukraine in the past few months. Temperatures are dropping below zero Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), with lows of minus 20 degrees Celsius in the region. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said about 4 million people are without power.
Roman Dohovic, an aid coordinator for the eastern Slovak city of Kosice, said refugee numbers were “currently up 15%,” with about 6.9 million people believed to be displaced internally within Ukraine.
Russia continues to deploy its troops, however, and call on reservists in a continuation of its invasion. Ukraine’s forces have been fending off attacks, according to reports, and are also on the offensive.
As part of its broader war efforts, Russia has been working on repairing the Crimean Bridge destroyed in October, but the British defense ministry said Wednesday that the bridge was “unlikely to be fully operational until at least September 2023.”
The road bridge was scheduled to close Tuesday in order to install a 64-meter span, the ministry said in a Twitter post. Three additional spans are needed to rebuild the damaged bridge.
“Although Crimean officials have claimed these additional spans will be in place by 20 December, a briefing provided to President Putin added that works to the other carriageway would cause disruption to road traffic until March 2023,” the ministry said.
The bridge has been used to transfer Russian logistics supplies for Crimea and southern Ukraine. Russia used the route to move military equipment and troops in the area by rail or road since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the defense ministry’s update added.
Elsewhere in Russian-occupied areas, the Kremlin-installed mayor in the town of Snihurivka, east of the southern city of Mykolaiv, was cited by Russia’s RIA news agency as saying residents had seen tanks and that fierce fighting was going on.
“They got into contact during the day and said there were tanks moving around and, according to their information, heavy fighting on the edge of the town,” Reuters quoted Mayor Yuri Barabashov as saying, sharing accounts of residents.
“People saw this equipment moving through the streets in the town center,” Barabashov said.
The Ukrainian governor of Mykolaiv region, Vitaly Kim, said Ukraine’s offenses had pushed Russian troops out of the region.
“Russian troops are complaining that they have already been thrown out of there,” Kim said in a statement on his Telegram channel.
The Reuters news agency reported that it was not able to independently verify the accounts coming from the warring sides. No official confirmation from Ukraine or Russia was issued on the battleground reports, the report added.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.