Kyiv, Ukraine — Russia’s military said Wednesday it will withdraw from the onlyit captured, but Kyiv was skeptical and an analyst warned this could be a ruse to lure the country’s forces into a deadly trap. A forced pullout from the city of Kherson would mark one of Russia’s worst setbacks in the 8-month-old war.
Ukrainian authorities cautioned against considering the announced plan to retreat from Kherson, a gateway to the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula and nearby areas, as a done deal. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that the Russians were feigning a pullout from Kherson to lure the Ukrainian army into an entrenched battle in the strategic industrial port city.
If confirmed, the withdrawal from Kherson — in a region of the same name that Moscow illegally annexed in September — would pile on another setback to Russia’s early failed attempt to capture the capital, Kyiv, and the chaotic and hasty retreat from the administrative region around, which itself never fell to the Russians. Russian forces captured Kherson early in the invasion, which began Feb. 24.
Kyiv’s forces, whose prewar population was 280,000, and cut off supply lines in recent weeks as part of a larger counteroffensive in eastern and southern Ukraine that has pushed Russian troops out of wide swaths of territory.
Ukraine’s presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak stressed on Wednesday that the effort to retake the city wasn’t yet complete, however, saying as long as the Ukrainian flag isn’t flying over Kherson, it makes “no sense” to discuss a Russian retreat.
Recapturing Kherson could allow Ukraine to win back lost territory in the Zaporizhzhia region and other southern areas, including Crimea, which Russia illegally seized in 2014. A Russian retreat is almost certain to raise domestic pressure on the Kremlin to escalate the conflict.
Speaking in a stern tone and with a steely face on Russian TV, Moscow’s top military commander in Ukraine pointed to a blurred map as he reported to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday that it was impossible to supply the city of Kherson, and that its defense would be “futile.”
Gen. Sergei Surovikin said that 115,000 people had been relocated because their “lives are constantly in danger” and proposed a military retreat “in the near future” to the opposite bank of the Dnieper River from where Kherson lies.
Shoigu agreed with Surovikin’s assessment and ordered him to “start with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnieper River.”
But Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak told The Associated Press: “So far, we do not see any signs that Russia is completely leaving the city, which means that these statements may be disinformation.”
Yaroslav Yanushevych, Kherson’s Ukrainian-appointed governor, called on residents “not to give in to euphoria” just yet. Another Ukrainian-appointed Kherson regional official, Serhii Khlan, told reporters that Russian forces had blown up five bridges to slow Kyiv’s forces.
Military analyst Oleg Zhdanov told the AP that Russia’s announced retreat “could very well be an ambush and a Russian trap to force the Ukrainians to go on the offensive, force them to penetrate the Russian defenses, and in response to strike with a powerful blow from the flanks.”
After a day of his aides’ observations about the announced retreat and a meeting he held with his senior military staff in Kyiv, Zelenskyy didn’t directly comment, saying in his nightly video address, “Our emotions must be restrained — always during war. I will definitely not feed the enemy all the details of our operations. … When we have our result, everyone will see it.”
Russian-installed authorities hadin late October, ahead of an expected advance by Ukrainian troops who have been waging a counteroffensive aimed at recapturing the occupied area.
Last week, CBS News senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams caught up with one of the Ukrainian troops — a former crane operator who joined the army as the war began — who has helped to liberate village after village on the fringes of Kherson city.
Private Andriy Rogalski was keen to show Williams the small town of Vysokopillia. Like many other communities in the Kherson region, Russian forces occupied it for months, leaving many of its homes splintered. Rogalski described to CBS News how Ukrainian forces had surrounded the town, grinding down the Russians until the remaining troops fled in September.
On Vysokopillia’s main street, Williams and Rogalski met 74-year-old Nadia Sabsai as she headed home on her bicycle. She showed CBS News the basement of her apartment building, where she said eight families had taken shelter, with their children quivering in fear, during the intense battle to liberate the town.
Russia’s brutal occupation of much of the Kherson region has left many towns like Vysokopillia reeling, and there’s much ground left to reclaim. More than half of Kherson lies east of the Dnieper River, and the orders handed down by Russia’s defense chief on Wednesday were for Russian forces to set up their new defensive line on its eastern bank.
Surovikin, Putin’s relatively new overall commander in Ukraine, whose brutal tactics intold the defense minister in Moscow that the decision to pull Russia’s forces back to the bank of the Dnieper was “not easy,” but he said it would “save the lives of our military.”
In its latest assessment of the situation in Ukraine, posted online earlier Wednesday, the British Defense Intelligence agency said damage to the only bridge linking the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula with the Russian mainland, caused by an explosion weeks ago that Kyiv has not claimed but also not denied causing, combined with a recent Ukrainian attack on Russia’s navy in the Black Sea “and the probable withdrawal from Kherson all complicate the Russian government’s ability to paint a picture of military success.”