Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly endorsed the evacuation of civilians from parts of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, amid conflicting reports of a curfew being imposed in the Russian-controlled area.
“Now, of course, those who live in Kherson should be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions, because the civilian population should not suffer,” Putin told pro-Kremlin activists on Friday as he marked Russia’s Day of Unity.
Russia could be preparing to abandon its military foothold on the west bank of the Dnieper River, including Kherson’s regional capital, in what would be one of the biggest Russian retreats of the war.
Kherson, a city with a population of about 284,000 people before the conflict, is the only big city Russia has captured intact since its invasion in February. The surrounding province controls land access to Russian-occupied Crimea and securing it was one of the few successes of an otherwise disastrous Russian campaign.
Ukraine said the evacuations include the forced relocation of civilians, a war crime, which Moscow denies.
Ukraine has been wary of blatant signs of a Russian defeat, including pictures circulating on the internet showing Russia’s flag no longer flying atop the main administration building in Kherson city, saying these signs could be a trap.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-installed occupation administration in Kherson, said on Thursday that Russia was likely to pull its troops from the west bank.
In later remarks, he was more equivocal, saying he hoped there would be no retreat but “we have to take some very difficult decisions”.
Stremousov on Friday also said a 24-hour curfew had been imposed on the city to defend it from a likely Ukrainian offensive, but backtracked shortly after.
“In the city of Kherson there are absolutely no restrictions that would limit the life of the city,” Stremousov said on Telegram after an earlier message announcing a curfew on the same channel was edited out.
Russian authorities claimed to have formally annexed Kherson along with three other provinces on September 30, despite Moscow not having full control on the ground.
Ukraine’s defence minister last week said the counteroffensive against Russian forces in Kherson was proving more difficult than it was in the northeast because of wet weather and the terrain.
Kyiv has been pleading for greater military assistance from Western allies to advance past Russian fortified positions towards Kherson city.
The United States on Friday announced the refurbishment of T-72 tanks and HAWK surface-to-air missiles as part of a roughly $400m security assistance package for Ukraine.
The T-72s fall short of more modern tanks such as the German Leopard or US Abrams that have been sought by Kyiv.
The “tanks are coming from the Czech Republic defence industry, and the United States is paying for 45 of those to be refurbished, and the government of the Netherlands is matching our commitment” for a total of 90 T-72s, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told journalists.
The Soviet-era tanks will be equipped with “advanced optics, communications and armour packages,” with some ready by the end of December and others to be delivered in 2023, she said.
Singh cited factors including ease of use and cost as reasons for not providing more modern equipment.
The package also funds the refurbishment of HAWK missiles from US inventories, an important asset as Ukraine seeks to counter Russian drone and missile strikes targeting its cities and energy infrastructure.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday that the Group of Seven (G7) countries was focusing more of its security support on helping Ukraine defend against Russia’s attacks on its energy grid.
“The G7 agreed to create a new coordination group to help prepare, restore and defend Ukraine’s energy grid, the very grid that President Putin has brutalised,” Blinken said after a two-day G7 meeting in the western German town of Muenster.
He accused Russia of trying to “freeze [Ukrainians] into submission”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said four million people across Ukraine were being affected by rolling power cuts.