Ukraine is wary of Russia’s Kherson retreat, fearing a trap

The Russian defeat in Kherson comes as Ukraine continues to receive aid from its Western allies. Photo: Reuters
The Russian defeat in Kherson comes as Ukraine continues to receive aid from its Western allies. Photo: Reuters


  • Top US general says war has left 100,000 dead or wounded on each side.

Ukrainian officials urged caution about Russia’s announced withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson, as U.S. officials estimated that 100,000 troops on each side had been killed or wounded since the war began.

Russia said on Wednesday that it was pulling troops from Kherson and surrounding areas, abandoning the only regional capital it had seized since its invasion in February and boosting Ukraine’s campaign to regain lost land.

But officials in Kyiv have warned that the Russian claim could be a way of luring Ukrainian soldiers into a bloody fight for the city, where signs suggest Russia still has a sizable contingent of forces and has booby-trapped key objects of infrastructure to slow Ukraine’s advance.

“It’s important to understand: No one leaves any place just like that," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late-night video address on Wednesday.

The loss of Kherson is a symbolic blow for the Kremlin, which had been dispatching officials from Moscow to hold meetings in Kherson with Russian-installed officials and promised Russia would remain in the region forever. In September, it declared it was annexing Kherson along with three other Ukrainian regions.

Control of the west bank of the Dnipro River, where Kherson city lies, kept alive Russia’s aspiration to build a land bridge to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, while maintaining pressure on Mykolaiv to the north with artillery strikes that have left that city without running water for months.

If it proceeds with a full-scale withdrawal, Russia will be tasked with moving a large number of troops across the river to the eastern bank while relying on barges and pontoon bridges after high-precision Ukrainian strikes damaged key bridges leading into the city.

Ukrainian and Western officials say any withdrawal would likely take several days, and the Russian retreat will be covered by artillery fire and defensive positions across the water.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said Kyiv is seeing no sign that Russia will leave Kherson without a fight. The Russian military has heavily mined the city, he said on Thursday, and plans to use artillery positioned on the eastern bank to turn urban areas into ruin. Kherson, he said in a tweet, may be turned into a “city of death."

Pro-Kremlin journalists in the city have posted videos appearing to show barges taking cargo and vehicles across the river. “Today we crossed on barges for the final time," Aleksandr Kots, a correspondent for Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, wrote on his Telegram channel.

“It’s clear why what is happening is happening," Sergei Shilov, a reporter from Russian state news outlet RIA, said in a video post from a barge crossing the Dnipro. “Defending the city with such supplies would be complete madness."

The announcement of a Russian withdrawal was widely anticipated for weeks, since Russia began to transfer troops and residents across the river and move loot including art and even historical monuments to the eastern bank starting in September, according to Ukrainian officials.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the top Russian commander in Ukraine, warned last month that “difficult decisions" would have to be made in regards to Kherson, and Russian military bloggers who often reflect the Kremlin line have been speculating about the timing of a Russian retreat from the city.

Russian paramilitary leaders who criticized the army for earlier retreats praised Wednesday’s decision. Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the paramilitary group Wagner, said the withdrawal was justified as it saved lives and preserved the army’s fighting strength.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t yet commented on the withdrawal, which has been framed as a purely military decision.

Some Russian military bloggers, however, were critical, saying it demonstrated the weakness of Russia’s armed forces. In announcing the decision, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu justified it by highlighting the need to safeguard the lives of Russian troops.

The war has ground on for months and has sapped the energy of both sides, as troops gird for the onset of winter and Ukraine struggles with blackouts caused by Russian missile and drone strikes that have damaged many of the country’s power stations.

Speaking at the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday evening, U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that roughly 100,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded. He added, “same thing probably on the Ukrainian side."

The Russian defeat in Kherson comes as Ukraine continues to receive aid from its Western allies and seeks to convince them that it can win the war given enough military support, despite calls from some Western capitals for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia in a bid to end the war.

The U.K. on Wednesday said it had provided approximately 1,000 additional surface-to-air missiles to help counter the Russian threat to Ukrainian infrastructure.

“This commitment of hundreds more surface-to-air missiles continues our defensive support for Ukraine against Russian aggression—and will help Ukraine counter the threat from illegal targeting of critical national infrastructure," the U.K.’s defense minister, Ben Wallace, said during a visit to two training sites where more than 7,400 Ukrainian recruits have been trained by British forces alongside eight partner nations.

The arms support consists of launchers and missiles capable of shooting down air targets, including the kinds of drones and cruise missiles that have hit Ukrainian infrastructure recently.

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