Kyiv, Ukraine – Standing next to a map, Sergey Surovikin, Russia’s top general leading the war in Ukraine, appeared on state television on Wednesday evening to tell Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that Russian troops should withdraw from Kherson city.
“Our further plans and actions about the city of Kherson will depend on how the military-tactical situation unfolds,” Surovikin said. “Nowadays, it’s not easy.”
He said the retreat from the largest Ukrainian city Russia had seized since the war began in late February was a move to save the lives of Russian servicemen amid difficulties to keep supply lines open.
The camera then turned to Shoigu, who said he agreed with Surovikin’s conclusions and ordered the withdrawal of troops and their transfer across the Dnieper River.
A few hours later, at about 11pm (21:00 GMT), a local resident told Al Jazeera Russian military vehicles were heard leaving Kherson, the administrative capital of the eponymous region in southern Ukraine that serves as a gateway to the annexed Crimea Peninsula across two remaining bridges.
One is the Antonivsky bridge that stretches almost 1,400 metres (4,593 feet) across the blue waters of the Dnieper, Ukraine’s largest river, which bisects the ex-Soviet nation into the largely Russian-speaking east, or left, bank, and the Ukrainian-speaking west, or right, bank.
The other is the bridge over the Nova Kakhovka dam, northeast of Kherson, which contains almost 20 cubic kilometres of the Dnieper’s waters and which redirects some of it to the arid, water-starved Crimean Peninsula Russia annexed in 2014.
Both bridges have been partially damaged by pinpointed Ukrainian missile attacks in recent months, slowing down the movement of Russian soldiers.
“We hit them with missiles several times,” the Kherson resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Ukrainian troops have not entered the city, told Al Jazeera, referring to Ukrainian forces.
“We’re praying for them to come in,” he said, adding he will stay in his apartment not far from the Antonivsky bridge until the Ukrainian troops enter the city after more than eight months of Russian occupation.
But the Ukrainians are not rushing in – even though since August, they have kicked Russians out of dozens of towns and villages on the Dnieper’s right bank, seizing about one-tenth of the Belgium-sized region.
The Kremlin’s withdrawal decision is reportedly not sudden.
The retreat from Kherson “is a possible yet unwanted scenario”, a source in the Kremlin told the Meduza.io online magazine earlier this week.
The publication even quoted a document it said contained instructions from the Kremlin to Russian mass media on how to explain the retreat.
“The evacuation of peaceful civilians of the city [of Kherson] to the Dnieper’s left bank is triggered by the danger of a massive strike on the city delivered by a huge group of [Ukrainian] nationalists,” the instruction allegedly said.
But Ukrainian military expert Oleh Zhdanov believes the retreat is nothing but a trap to lure Ukrainian forces in and inflict massive losses on them. He claimed Russian forces disguised as civilians are holed up in Kherson’s residential areas to shoot at Ukrainian servicemen.
“On camera, it will look like alleged civilians resisting the Ukrainian army,” he said in televised remarks on Thursday.
Top Ukrainian officials are equally wary.
“Until the Ukrainian flag hovers over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about the withdrawal of Russian troops,” presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said in televised remarks on Wednesday.
Actions speak louder than words. We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight. A part of the ru-group is preserved in the city, and additional reserves are charged to the region. 🇺🇦 is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) November 9, 2022
Before the retreat announcement, Russian-appointed officials had for weeks been urging tens of thousands of civilians to leave the city and destroyed hundreds of boats of all sizes on both banks.
Many preferred to stay in the city, which had a prewar population of nearly 300,000 people, despite the risks.
“My mom refused to leave, and is now in her apartment with a sack of spuds and some macaroni,” Anton Chervenko, a sales clerk in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.
The retreating occupants have also removed Russian flags and even took away two bronze statues of 18th-century czarist generals.
But Kherson regional lawmaker Serhiy Hlan is adamant the retreat is real because Russia can no longer afford to keep its forces on the Dnieper’s right bank amid daily attacks delivered by Western-supplied missiles.
“This is a logistical ending of Ukraine’s counteroffensive that began in August,” the official said in televised remarks.
“The losses the occupants suffered in recent months began rising in a geometric progression because we receive more aid from our Western partners,” he said.
He is confident that in the near future, the Russians will deoccupy all of the Kherson region.
“This is definitely not a trap,” Hlan concluded.
Some international military experts agree.
“The battle of Kherson is not over, but Russian forces have entered a new phase – prioritizing withdrawing their forces across the river in good order and delaying Ukrainian forces, rather than seeking to halt the Ukrainian counteroffensive entirely,” the Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank, said on Wednesday.
Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Germany-based analyst, warned Russia’s retreat from the city may lead to massive, indiscriminate shelling from the left bank.
Ukrainian forces “should expect that the Russians will easily destroy the city with shelling from the left bank the way they’re doing it with Kharkiv”, the eastern Ukrainian city that has been shelled almost daily since the war began, Mitrokhin, a Russia expert at the University of Bremen, told Al Jazeera.
Kherson’s pro-Russian administration moved to the city of Henichesk, in the region’s south, earlier this month.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of retreating Russian servicemen have flooded the city, moving into the empty houses and apartments of locals who had left, according to a resident.
Their presence intensified violence towards local pro-Ukrainian activists and sympathisers who are thrown in makeshift prisons known as “basements”, the resident said.
“There are many people in the basements, even women,” she said on condition of anonymity.
However, she is optimistic about the pace of deoccupation – and is even hopeful that Crimea will soon be liberated, too.
“I think we will soon go to Ukrainian Crimea,” she told Al Jazeera.