What do we know about Russia’s order to withdraw from Kherson?

Losing the key southern Ukrainian city would be a major blow to Putin, but Kyiv remains wary that it could be a trap.

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 2S7 Pion self-propelled gun.
Ukrainian forces have been advancing in the Kherson region in recent weeks [Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters]

Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu has ordered Moscow’s troops to withdraw from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, which Kyiv’s troops have been advancing on for weeks.

“Begin to pull out troops,” Shoigu told a televised meeting with Russia’s commander in Ukraine, Sergey Surovikin, on Wednesday.

Ukraine’s forces have for weeks been capturing villages en route to the city near the Black Sea and Kremlin-installed leaders in Kherson have been pulling out civilians.

Here is a look at what the announcement might mean for the war in Ukraine:

Why announce a withdrawal now?

Kherson city was the first urban hub captured by Russia during its “special military operation” and the only regional capital controlled by the Russians since the offensive began on February 24.

In televised comments, General Surovikin said it was no longer possible to keep Kherson city supplied.

Some 115,000 people had been removed from the right bank of the Dnieper, which includes the city.

“We have done everything possible for our part to ensure their safety during the evacuation,” Surovikin said in a report broadcast on the state-run Rossiya-24 television channel.

“I understand that this is a very difficult decision, but at the same time, we will preserve the most important thing – the lives of our servicemen and, in general, the combat effectiveness of the group of troops, which it is futile to keep on the right bank in a limited area.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly endorsed evacuations from parts of the Kherson region last week, saying civilians “should not suffer”.

Earlier on Wednesday, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up. Ukrainians who posted photos of the destroyed bridge speculated that it had been blown up by Russian troops in preparation for a retreat.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Putin had made the mistake of underestimating Ukraine’s courage and commitment to fight, as well as the resolve of NATO allies to provide support to Kyiv.


Does this mean Russia is leaving Kherson?

Kyiv has said it is wary that such reports could be a trap to lure its troops to advance.

A senior adviser to Ukraine’s president said it was too early to talk about a Russian troop pull-out from Kherson city.

“It’s necessary to separate words from deeds,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a political adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in a statement to Reuters.

“Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal.”

He added that a grouping of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation was being maintained in the city and that additional manpower was being pulled into the region.

What would a withdrawal from Kherson mean for the war?

Kherson is the main city of the region of the same name – one of four Ukrainian regions that Putin proclaimed in September he was incorporating into Russia “forever”.

Military setbacks are likely to worsen criticism of Russia’s leadership, at a time when Putin’s support has already been eroded by moves including a controversial partial mobilisation.

Strategically, a Ukrainian victory in the Black Sea region would cut off the land bridge that the Kremlin established from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.

It would also return important access to the Sea of Azov to Ukraine and leave Putin with little to show from a campaign that has turned him into a pariah in the eyes of the West.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies