Ukrainian officials said Russian troops had no choice but to flee a key southern city but stopped short of declaring victory in Kherson on Thursday even after Moscow said it began a retreat that would represent a humiliating defeat in the grinding war.
It was difficult to know what was happening in the strategic port city, from which tens of thousands of people have fled in recent weeks. Some Western observers, including the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, said they believed the Kremlin’s forces had been forced to pull out — though a full withdrawal could take some time.
Ukrainian officials have warned for weeks that any announcement of a Russian retreat should be treated skeptically. They have accused Moscow of plotting to lure Ukrainian troops into an ambush and said Russian soldiers had donned civilian clothes in an effort to melt into the city’s population.
But on Thursday, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhny, said that “the enemy had no other choice but to resort to fleeing,” since Kyiv’s army had “destroyed logistical routes and supply system, [and] disrupted the system of the enemy’s military command” in the area.
Still, he said that the Ukrainian military could not confirm whether Russian forces were indeed withdrawing from Kherson as the Russian Defense Ministry reported Thursday. The Russian ministry said there was a “maneuver of units of the Russian group” to the opposite side of the Dnieper River from where Kherson lies, a day after ordering a withdrawal.
Another senior Ukrainian official offered another reason to be wary of any purported pullback. Presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak alleged that Russian forces had laid mines throughout Kherson, saying they wanted to turn it into a “city of death.”
Moscow took Kherson soon after launching its invasion Feb. 24 — the only provincial capital Russia forces have captured — and illegally annexed the wider region of the same name in September.
A forced pullout from the city would mark one of Russia’s worst setbacks, and recapturing Kherson could allow Ukraine to win back lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow illegally seized in 2014. A Russian retreat is also almost certain to raise domestic pressure on the Kremlin to escalate the conflict.
Ukrainian officials have been cautious throughout the war in declaring any victories against a Russian force that at least initially outgunned and outmanned them. But their outright skepticism of Russia’s announcement of a withdrawal was unusual.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a day earlier that he believed a retreat was underway.
“The initial indicators are they are in fact doing it. They made the public announcement they’re doing it. I believe they’re doing it in order to preserve their force to reestablish defensive lines south of the river, but that remains to be seen,” he said at the Economic Club of New York.
Milley said that Russia had amassed 20,000 to 30,000 troops in Kherson and that a full retreat could take several weeks.
One analyst noted that the Ukrainian army has been systematically destroying bridges and roads for several months, making a quick transfer of Russian troops from one side of the river to the other an impossibility.
“The main question is whether the Ukrainians will give the Russians the opportunity to calmly withdraw, or fire at them during the crossing to the left bank,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. “With the rapid withdrawal of troops, the Russians are at great risk. The bridges are in very poor condition — the personnel can be taken out on boats, but the equipment needs to be taken out only on barges and pontoons, and this is very easily shelled by the Ukrainian army.”
A think tank that tracks the war also said the withdrawal appeared genuine.
“The Russian withdrawal from the west bank of the [Dnieper] is unlikely to be a trap meant to lure Ukrainian troops into costly combat near Kherson City,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote in an update. “ISW has previously observed many indicators that Russian forces, military and economic assets, and occupation elements have steadily withdrawn … and Russian officials have been anticipating and preparing for withdrawal in a way that is incompatible with a campaign to deceive and trap Ukrainian troops.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday also took Moscow’s announcement at face value, welcoming it. But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was more guarded, insisting that the West needed to wait and see “how the situation on the ground develops in the coming days.”
“What is clear is that Russia is under heavy pressure. And if they leave Kherson , it would be another victory for Ukraine,” he said at a news briefing in Rome.
Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said Thursday that three civilians had been killed in the region and another 12 wounded in the last 24 hours. Writing on Telegram, the official also reported that law-enforcement officers had found the bodies of five people killed during the Russian occupation of the town of Yarova, which was retaken by Ukraine on Sept. 19.
Russian forces overnight pounded the city of Nikopol and nearby areas, using multiple-rocket launchers and heavy artillery, Dnipropetrovsk Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. The shelling wounded an 80-year-old woman and damaged 10 residential buildings, a gas station, a gas pipeline and a power line.
The neighboring Zaporizhzhia region was also shelled Thursday morning, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.