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LONDON — Russia has prepared the groundwork for withdrawing its troops from Kherson, the largest Ukrainian city its forces have occupied since the February invasion, a Western official said.
In the last couple of weeks, the Ukrainian army has made “spectacular” advances in its campaign to regain territory occupied by the Russians, who have been forced to move to a more defensive position and are “critically short of munitions,” the official said Thursday.
Russia is now believed to have temporarily bolstered its forces near Kherson to cover a retreat to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, and has also ordered civilians to evacuate from occupied areas on the western bank.
“We are confident in our previous warnings that the prospects of Russian military withdrawal from their Kherson bridgehead,” the official said. “Planning is almost certainly well advanced.”
Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of Kherson’s Moscow-installed administration, told Russian state television on Thursday that Russian troops could move across the Dnipro in the coming days.
“Most likely, our units, our troops will go to the left bank part of the Kherson region,” he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also struck an upbeat note on impending Ukrainian advances.
“On the issue of whether or not the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the west side of the Dnieper river in Kherson, I certainly believe that they have the capability to do that,” Austin told a press conference. “Most importantly, the Ukrainians believe they have the capability to do that. We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to take back their sovereign territory.”
Rumors about a potential Russian withdrawal from Kherson city swirled around Thursday after pictures were posted on social media platforms showing the Russian flag was missing from the main administrative building in the city. However, footage on the Telegram channel showed Russian flags flying from other official buildings.
There is some caution about those reports from Ukrainian authorities.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, said it could be a Russian “trick.”
“This may be a provocation in order to create the impression that settlements have been abandoned, that it is safe to enter them,” she told Ukrainian television. “Considering the fact that they have been preparing for street battles for a long time, the way they position their units, we are aware of the planned tactics and should not be in a hurry to rejoice.”
The Western official cautioned that any decision to retreat “is more about Russians making long-term strategic decisions about where is best to defend in order to be effective, maintain their own munitions supplies, maintain their troop levels and set themselves for the winter.
“I think in their judgement, they have decided that Kherson city is not worth fighting for, that that natural defensive barrier of the river is extremely valuable to them.”
Kherson Oblast is one of four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed last month by Russia following sham referendums.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to present any withdrawal as an evacuation rather than a retreat. Russian special forces might continue to operate on the western bank of the river even after a withdrawal, the official warned.
In Kherson, “it’s likely that most echelons of [Russian] command have now withdrawn across the river, leaving demoralized and leaderless men to face Ukrainian assaults,” the official added.
Any retreat would be likely to trigger another uptick in criticism of Putin’s leadership from Russian nationalists and could affect his credibility, the official added.
A Russian withdrawal from Kherson would bolster moral in Kyiv and across Ukraine. However Ukrainian forces are unlikely to be able this winter to retake the Crimean Peninsula, occupied by Russian troops since 2014 and also illegally annexed.
The weather is about to turn rainier and frostier, which will likely slow down the fighting, and the Ukrainians would still have to cross the Dnipro and face a well-fortified Russian defensive line on their way to Crimea, the official said.