Russia has ordered its forces to withdraw from the Ukrainian city of Kherson, the only regional capital seized by President Vladimir Putin’s troops since the war began.
The announcement on Wednesday followed weeks of Ukrainian advances towards the city and signalled a potentially huge blow to Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, which it invaded in late February.
In televised comments, General Sergey Surovikin said it was no longer possible to keep Kherson city supplied.
“Having comprehensively assessed the current situation, it is proposed to take up defence along the left [eastern] bank of the Dnieper River,” said Surovikin, standing at a lectern and indicating troop positions on a map whose details were greyed-out for the TV audience.
“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 Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu also echoed the comments and said: “I agree with your conclusions and proposals. Proceed with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to transfer forces across the river.”
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based Russian military and defence analyst said the announcement was a “big blow” to Moscow and was being criticised in Telegram channels linked to the nationalist right.
“Politically it’s very embarrassing,” Felgenhauer told Al Jazeera, “But militarily it makes sense and that is why Russian generals were pressed into such a decision. This is not a Russian defeat since it will be withdrawing in an orderly manner and Ukraine will advance cautiously, afraid of any kind of Russian trickery.”
Prominent Kremlin supporters including Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state media outlet RT, put a positive spin on Surovikin’s announcement noting the need to save lives, with Simonyan drawing parallels with the 1812 decision to abandon Moscow to Napoleon.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who has frequently urged a more aggressive approach to the war and called for the use of low-grade nuclear weapons, said Surovikin had “made the difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers”.
‘Words and actions differ’
Commenting on Russia’s announcement, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said “actions speak louder than words”.
“We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” he said in a Twitter post.
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
Podolyak added that “a part” of the Russian forces was “preserved in the city, and additional reserves are charged to the region. Ukraine is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.”
Yaroslav Yanushevych, Kherson’s Ukrainian-appointed governor, called on residents “not to give in to euphoria” just yet.
Kherson is one of four Ukrainian regions Putin proclaimed in September he was incorporating into Russia “forever” after referendums condemned as illegal by Ukraine and its allies.
However, there has been mounting speculation in recent weeks that Moscow could either withdraw its forces from the west bank of the Dnieper or dig in for a bloody battle.
Earlier on Wednesday, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up. Photos posted online showed the span of the Darivka bridge on the main highway east out of Kherson completely collapsed into the water of the Inhulets River, a tributary of the Dnieper.
Ukrainians who posted photos of the destroyed bridge speculated it had been blown up by Russian troops in preparation for a retreat.
Vitaliy Kim, the Ukrainian governor of the Mykolaiv region, which borders Kherson, suggested Ukrainian forces had pushed some Russians out.
“Russian troops are complaining that they have already been thrown out of there,” Kim said in a statement on his Telegram channel.
The withdrawal announcement was lamented by Russia’s influential war bloggers, who described it as a bitter blow.
“Apparently we will leave the city, no matter how painful it is to write about it now,” said the War Gonzo blog, which has more than 1.3 million subscribers on Telegram.
“In simple terms, Kherson can’t be held with bare hands,” it said.
“Yes, this is a black page in the history of the Russian army. Of the Russian state. A tragic page.”