NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has said he is waiting to see how Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson proceeds, but if confirmed, it would be “another victory for Ukraine”.
“We have to see how the situation on the ground develops in the coming days. But what is clear is that Russia is under heavy pressure and if they leave Kherson, it would be another victory for Ukraine,” he said in Rome, where he held talks with the new Italian prime minister.
Ukraine said on Thursday its forces had reclaimed a dozen villages in the southern Kherson region, a day after Russia ordered its troops to withdraw from the eponymous city. Russia said on Thursday its forces had begun to pull out.
“We have seen how the Ukrainian armed forces have been able to push back Russian forces and liberate territory,” Stoltenberg said.
“These gains belong to the brave courageous soldiers of Ukraine.”
Kyiv’s forces have zeroed in on Kherson city, with a pre-war population of 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.
Recapturing Kherson could allow Ukraine to win back lost territory in the Zaporizhia region and other southern areas, including Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. If Russia implements its withdrawal from an area that President Vladimir Putin proclaimed annexed a month ago, it would be its biggest retreat since its forces were driven back from the outskirts of Kyiv in March.
A Russian retreat could also raise domestic pressure on the Kremlin to escalate the conflict.
Ukrainian authorities have cautioned against considering the announced plan as a done deal.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that the Russians could be feigning a pull-out from Kherson to lure the Ukrainian army into an entrenched battle in the strategic industrial port city.
“Until the Ukrainian flag hovers over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about the withdrawal of Russian troops,” presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Zelenskyy agreed any Russian withdrawal from Kherson would demonstrate “strong progress” for Ukrainian forces, Sunak’s office said.
However, during a phone call between the two leaders on Thursday, both also said it was right to express caution about the withdrawal “until the Ukrainian flag was raised over the city”, a spokesperson for Sunak said.
“The prime minister praised the bravery of the Ukrainian armed forces and reiterated the UK’s unwavering military, economic and political support,” the spokesperson added.
Meloni pledges to defend Ukraine
Stoltenberg was speaking after his first face-to-face talks with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who took office late last month.
Her government allies include many people sympathetic to Moscow, although she herself has repeatedly emphasised her support for Ukraine and for sanctions against Russia.
Meloni said one of her priorities was to work to strengthen the alliance, to make it “even more capable of responding to threats coming from all directions”.
“The alliance is indispensable for security and the prosperity of our countries,” she told reporters, adding that her government remained committed to defending “the territorial integrity, sovereignty and freedom of Ukraine”.
Stoltenberg said NATO would support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.
“The unprecedented support that NATO allies, including Italy, has provided is making a difference on the battleground every day and remains vital for the Ukrainian progress,” he told reporters.