Russia’s military has been ordered to pull out of the Ukrainian city of Kherson, the only regional capital it captured after invading in February.
Russia’s commander in Ukraine, Gen Sergei Surovikin, said it was no longer possible to keep supplying the city. Russia to withdraw troops from the Kherson city.
The withdrawal means Russian forces will pull out entirely from the western bank of the River Dnipro.
It is a significant blow as Russia faces a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The military’s top brass announced the decision on Russian state TV, with Gen Surovikin reporting on the situation on the ground in Kherson.
President Vladimir Putin did not take part in the staged event. The architect of Russia’s failing war in Ukraine appeared to have left the announcement to his generals.
It was Mr Putin who announced Russia’s annexation of Kherson, and three other occupied regions, at the end of September.
“In these circumstances, the most sensible option is to organise the defence along a barrier line along the river Dnipro,” Gen Surovikin told the meeting.
But its decision to pull back across the Dnipro river was treated with caution by Ukrainian officials.
“Actions speak louder than words,” said presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.
“We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight… [Ukraine] is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.”
All week, reports and rumours that Russia would leave Kherson have circulated. At a Ukrainian position on the perimeter around Kherson, soldiers said the enemy might be trying to draw them into a trap.
The Ukrainian commander said they had good intelligence, and would only advance cautiously.
After Russia’s announcement, civilians inside Kherson said Chechen troops from the Russian military are in the city, in cafes, and moving around the streets.
Another civilian said: “Visually, nothing has changed. On the right bank [western bank] in Kherson, they are almost invisible, and it has been [like that] for several days. They have already taken everything they could.
Breaking: Russia to withdraw troops
“There are a lot of them on the left bank, and they are building fortifications along the Dnipro and Plavni.”
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said it was “encouraging” to see Ukraine making advances.
“The gains…belong to the brave, courageous Ukrainian soldiers, but of course the support they receive from the United Kingdom, from Nato allies and partners is also essential,” he said.
Russian troops swept across southern Ukraine from annexed Crimea at the start of the war, seizing Kherson city in early March.
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They also launched attacks in the south, east and north of the country, including surrounding the capital, Kyiv. In recent months, however, Ukraine’s forces have made significant advances.
This counter-offensive escalated in September, when Ukraine drove back Russian forces, retaking the cities of Izyum and Kupiansk, both key supply hubs for Moscow’s forces. Since then, Russia has mainly focused its military operations in smaller pockets of Ukraine’s south, east and north-east.
There is no way for Moscow to depict this withdrawal as anything other than a humiliating setback – its biggest loss since Ukraine recaptured large areas around the city of Kharkiv in the early autumn.
And it further undermines Russia’s announcement that it was illegally annexing Ukrainian provinces, including Kherson, which it said would remain Russian territory “forever”.
But, as Mr Podolyak warned, there are several reasons for Ukraine to be cautious.
The first is that retreating Russian forces will most likely have left behind mines and booby traps for the advancing Ukrainians.
The second is that Russia, having withdrawn its troops to the east bank – and having “evacuated”, sometimes by force, large numbers of civilians – will now be tempted to bombard Kherson at will.
Finally, the pattern emerging in this war is that every time Russia suffers a major military setback it responds by further punishing the civilian population.
Expect more missile and drone strikes to make winter for Ukrainians as miserable as possible.
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