The new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine says the situation in the Kherson region has become “very difficult” as Ukrainian forces push ahead with an offensive to take back southern and eastern areas of the country and that Moscow was preparing to evacuate civilians, weeks after annexing the area.
Sergei Surovikin, a Russian air force general appointed on October 10 to lead the invasion, said the situation in Kherson was “very difficult” for both civilians and Russian soldiers.
“The Russian army will above all ensure the safe evacuation of the population” of Kherson, Surovikin told state television Rossiya 24.
“The enemy is not abandoning its attempts to attack Russian troop positions,” he added.
Russian forces in the region have been driven back 20 to 30 kilometres (13-20 miles) in the last few weeks and are at risk of being pinned against the western bank of the 2,200km (1,367-mile) Dnieper River that bisects Ukraine.
Surovikin said Russian positions in the towns of Kupiansk and Lyman in eastern Ukraine and the area of northern Kherson between Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih were under continuous attack.
“The situation in the area of the ‘special military operation’ can be described as tense,” Surovikin told Rossiya 24 using Moscow’s official terminology for the February 24 invasion.
Kherson is one of four partially-occupied Ukrainian provinces Russia claims to have annexed and arguably the most strategically important. It controls both the only land route to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and the mouth of the Dnieper.
After staging referendums in September that Ukraine and its allies said were illegal and coercive, Putin proclaimed the annexations of the eastern border provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk – together forming the Donbas industrial region – as well as Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south.
‘No place for civilians’
Vladimir Saldo, the Kremlin-installed head of the Kherson region, said the authorities had decided to evacuate some civilians because of the risk of attack by the Ukrainian military.
“The Ukrainian side is building up forces for a large-scale offensive,” Saldo said in a video statement. The Russian military was preparing to repel the offensive, he said, and “where the military operates, there is no place for civilians. Let the Russian army fulfil its task”.
Ukraine and Russia have denied targeting civilians, although Kyiv has accused Moscow’s forces of war crimes.
Surovikin appeared to concede that there was a danger of Ukrainian forces advancing towards the city of Kherson, which Russia captured largely unopposed in the early days of the invasion.
Surovikin has been nicknamed “General Armageddon” in Russian media after serving in Syria and Chechnya, where his forces pounded cities to rubble in a brutal scorched earth policy against its foes.
His appointment was rapidly followed by the biggest wave of missile attacks against Ukraine since the start of the war.
The raids continued this week, with Ukrainian officials saying they are being conducted with Iranian-made Shahed-136 “kamikaze drones“, which fly into their target and detonate.
Iran denies supplying the drones and on Tuesday the Kremlin denied using them.
“Russian tech is being used,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, referring other questions to the defence ministry.
However, two senior Iranian officials and two Iranian diplomats told the Reuters news agency that Tehran had promised to provide Russia with more drones as well as surface-to-surface missiles.
Russia has destroyed nearly one-third of Ukraine’s power stations in the past week, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Speaking in his nightly video address, he urged Ukrainians to cut back on electricity consumption in the evenings.