KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia's military said Wednesday it’s withdrawing from the only Ukrainian regional capital it’s captured, but Kyiv was skeptical and an analyst warned this could be a ruse to lure Ukraine’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 Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which itself never fell to the Russians. Russian forces captured Kherson, with a prewar population of 280,000, early in the invasion, which began Feb. 24.
Kyiv's forces have zeroed in on the city 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.
Recapturing Kherson could allow Ukraine to win back lost territory in the Zaporizhzhia region and other southern areas, leading to an eventual push back into 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 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 the advance of Kyiv’s forces.
Military analyst Oleg Zhdanov told the AP 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.”
As the report of a Russian withdrawal emerged, Zelenskyy met with his senior military staff in Kyiv to discuss the situation, including attempts to recapture territory, his website reported without giving details.
In addition to the largely successful counteroffensive, Ukrainian resistance fighters behind the front line have worked inside Kherson, with acts of sabotage and assassinations of Moscow-appointed officials.
Against that backdrop, reports surfaced Wednesday that the No. 2 official of the Moscow-installed Kherson regional government was killed in a car crash. There was no indication of foul play. The death of Kirill Stremousov — a prominent regional official who posted public updates about the war almost daily— was reported by Russian state news agencies and his boss, Vladimir Saldo.
The Russian Defense Ministry said months ago that Saldo himself had been poisoned and hospitalized.
The Russian military appeared to have been preparing for an orderly pullout from Kherson — or an ambush — for months, contrasting with the haphazard retreat from the Kharkiv region when the invading force left behind a large amount of weapons and ammunition. In October, Surovikin appeared to set the stage for a possible withdrawal from Kherson, acknowledging the situation was “quite difficult” for Moscow. Evacuations of civilians followed, as did symbolic moves, such as relocation of the remains of Grigory Potemkin, the Russian general who founded Kherson in the 18th century.
In recent months, Ukraine used U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers to hit a key bridge on the Dnieper in Kherson and a large dam upstream that is also used as a crossing point. The strikes forced Russia to rely on pontoons and ferries that Ukraine also targeted.
That disrupted supply links to Kherson and made Russian forces on the Dnieper's west bank vulnerable to encirclement. The shortages were exacerbated after an Oct. 8 truck bomb blew up part of the strategic Kerch Bridge linking Russia’s mainland to Crimea, which has served as a major supply hub for Russian forces.
Russia wanted to hold onto Kherson and other positions west of the Dnieper so it could press an offensive to other areas and sever Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. That would damage Ukraine’s economy and enable Moscow to build a land corridor to the separatist Transnistria region of Moldova, home to a major Russian military base.
The loss of Kherson could have painful consequences for Russian President Vladimir Putin: more criticism of Russia’s military command from hawks, a decline in troop morale, and stronger opposition to his troop mobilization. Abroad, China and India could see the loss as a sign of the Kremlin’s weakness when it needs their support in the face of crippling Western sanctions.
Other Kremlin setbacks have included a chaotic and mistake-ridden troop mobilization, poor training and a shortage of weapons, clothing and other supplies for troops, a growing international sanctions campaign against Russia, and increased Western advanced weapons supplies to Kyiv.
The Kherson developments came as villages and towns in Ukraine saw more heavy fighting and shelling Wednesday.
At least nine civilians were killed and 24 wounded in 24 hours, the Ukrainian president's office said. It accused Russia of using explosive drones, rockets, heavy artillery and aircraft to attack eight regions in the southeast.
Ukrainian and Russian forces also clashed overnight over Snihurivka, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Kherson.
The president's office said widespread Russian strikes on Ukraine’s energy system continued. Two cities not far from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant — Europe’s largest — were shelled overnight.