Russia’s plan to withdraw from Kherson is ‘well advanced,’ says Western official – POLITICO
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LONDON — Russia has prepared the groundwork for the withdrawal of its troops from Kherson, the largest Ukrainian city captured by its forces since the February invasion, a Western official said.
In recent weeks, Ukraine’s military has made “spectacular” progress in its campaign to recapture territory held by the Russians, who have been forced into a defensive position and are “critically short of ammunition,” an official said Thursday.
Russia is now believed to have temporarily reinforced its forces near Kherson to cover the retreat to the east bank of the Dnieper River, and has also ordered civilians to evacuate from occupied areas on the west bank.
“We are confident in our previous warnings that the prospect of the withdrawal of the Russian military from their Kherson bridgehead is likely,” the official said. “Planning is almost certainly well advanced.”
Kiril Stremousov, deputy head of the Kherson administration appointed by Moscow, said Russian state television announced on Thursday that Russian troops could move across the Dnieper in the coming days.
“Most likely, our units, our troops will go to the left-bank part of the Kherson region,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also expressed an optimistic attitude about the upcoming Ukrainian progress.
“As to whether or not the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the west side of the Dnieper River in Kherson, I certainly believe they have the ability to do so,” Austin said at a news conference. “Most importantly, Ukrainians believe they have the ability to do it. We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to reclaim their sovereign territory.”
Rumors of a potential Russian withdrawal from the city of Kherson spread on Thursday after that pictures have been published on social media platforms showing that the Russian flag has disappeared from the main administrative building in the city. However, recording on the Telegram channel, Russian flags were shown flying from other official buildings.
There is some caution regarding these reports from the Ukrainian authorities.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s military command in the south, said it could be a Russian “trick”.
“This can be a provocation in order to create the impression that the settlements are abandoned, that it is safe to enter them,” she said said Ukrainian television. “Given that they have been preparing for street fighting for a long time, the way they are positioning their units, we are aware of the planned tactics and we should not rush to be happy.”
A Western official warned that any decision to withdraw was “more about the Russians making long-term strategic decisions about where best to defend in order to be effective, maintain their own ammunition stocks, maintain their troop levels and prepare for the winter.”
“I think that in their estimation they decided that the city of Kherson was not worth fighting for, that the natural defensive barrier of the river was extremely valuable to them.”
Kherson Oblast is one of four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed last month by Russia after fake referendums.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to present any withdrawal as an evacuation rather than a withdrawal. Russian special forces could continue to operate on the west bank of the river even after the withdrawal, the official warned.
In Kherson, “probably most echelons [Russian] the command has now retreated across the river, leaving demoralized and leaderless men to face Ukrainian attacks,” the official added.
Any withdrawal would likely trigger another surge in criticism of Putin’s leadership from Russian nationalists and could affect his credibility, the official added.
A Russian withdrawal from Kherson would boost morale in Kiev and across Ukraine. However, it is unlikely that Ukrainian forces will be able to retake the Crimean peninsula this winter, which has been occupied by Russian troops since 2014 and was also illegally annexed.
The weather will soon turn rainier and icier, which is likely to slow down the fighting, and the Ukrainians would still have to cross the Dnieper and face a well-fortified Russian defense line on the way to Crimea, the official said.
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