Ukraine sees no sign that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight, a senior adviser to President Zelensky has said, amid fears in Kyiv that Moscow’s heavily stage-managed announcement of retreat is actually a carefully laid trap.
Mykhailo Podolyak, one of President Zelensky’s most-senior advisers, said last night that Russian troops remain in the city and that Kyiv believes reinforcements are on their way. ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ he tweeted, ‘Ukraine will liberate territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.’
Oleksiy Arestovych, another senior adviser and former head of military intelligence, was a little more optimistic but still cautious – saying that Russian forces do appear to be leaving the region ‘but not as much as would be taking place if it was a full pullout or regrouping.’
The Russians are destroying bridges as they flee and mining roads, according to Arestovych, who added: ‘For the moment, we don’t know their intentions – will they engage in fighting with us and will they try to hold the city of Kherson? They are moving very slowly.’
Zelensky also voiced fears overnight that Russia may try to blow up a dam at Nova Khakovka, flooding the area around Kherson and draining a reservoir which the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant relies on to cool itself – potentially triggering a meltdown.
Issuing a warning to Moscow, he added: ‘[This] will mean you are declaring a war on the whole world. Think what will happen to you then.’
Zelensky said his troops will ‘move very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk’ into the area Russia claims to have abandoned, ‘strengthening our positions step by step’ to avoid any potential traps. ‘The enemy does not give us gifts,’ he added.
Just two days ago, Ukraine’s generals said Russian troops dressed in civilian clothes are being positioned inside houses in Kherson and are ‘strengthening positions for street battles’.
A Ukrainian soldier based in Kherson takes part in a training exercise as Kyiv’s men get ready to advance into the region that Russia has said it is evacuating, amid fears the ‘retreat’ is actually a trap
Ukrainian soldiers from the 63 brigade train for trench warfare in the northern Kherson region, as they prepare to advance towards the regional capital in the south after Russia said it was evacuating
Ukrainian soldier from the 63 brigade seen having military training simulating an attack in the trenches for the counteroffensive to recapture Kherson
Ukrainian servicemen fire a 2S7 Pion self-propelled gun on the frontlines in the Kherson region, after Russia announced it would be withdrawing troops from the region
Ukrainian servicemen shoot from a self-propelled 203mm cannon ‘Pion’ at Russian troops as they begin withdrawing from the Kherson region after Putin’s top commander signalled a retreat
A Russian military boat is seen crossing the Dnipro River after Moscow announced it would retreat from the city of Kherson, amid suspicion in Kyiv that the ‘withdrawal’ is actually a trap
Russia says it will withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River and the city of Kherson, but that announcement was greeted with suspicion by Ukraine
Mark Galeotti, a professor and author on Russia, Putin and his wars, said the withdrawal is possibly an example of ‘maskirovka’ – a word that literally means ‘something masked’ but is used to describe a military tactic of deception that is embedded in the Russian military psyche.
But, speaking to BBC Radio 4, he added that an actual retreat from Kherson ‘does make sense militarily’ and it appears Russia’s generals have finally been able to persuade Putin to stop micro-managing the war and allow them to take the best tactical decisions even if it is damaging politically.
‘What we don’t know is whether this is just a one-off,’ he added. ‘Whether [the generals] convinced him this had to be done now rather than be forced on them, or whether this marks a wider change – is he more willing to let the generals do the generaling?’
‘What we’ve seen is really a major shift from Putin trying to win this war to Putin trying not to lose it.
‘All the moves we’ve seen, in terms of the mobilisation of reservists, the apparent shift back to a more defensible line along the Dnipro, what that all suggests is that Putin is digging in, hoping that victory will come in the long-term, that he can outlast the Ukrainians and perhaps more importantly that he can outlast the West.’
Professor Galeotti spoke after Russia said it was retreating from Kherson yesterday in a heavily stage-managed state TV appearance by General Sergei Surovikin – Putin’s top commander – and defence minister Sergei Shoigu.
Surovikin gave a report in which he said his troops are in danger and civilians are being killed, before recommending a retreat. Shoigu agreed, to which the squirming general replied: ‘Yes sir. The troop manoeuvres will be made as soon as possible.’
Putin – always on hand to cheer Russia’s ‘victories’ – was nowhere to be seen.
Witnesses say Russian men have already abandoned key checkpoints around Kherson and have destroyed bridges in an apparent effort to stop Ukrainian soldiers pursuing and capturing them.
Giving up Kerson – the capital of a region Putin annexed to Russia just weeks ago, his only toe-hold west of the Dnipro River, and a key checkpoint on the road to Crimea – is the most-humiliating loss his military has yet suffered.
The order for Russian troops to abandon the city came just hours after the Russian-installed ‘deputy head’ of the Kherson region was killed in a car crash.
The regional governor’s press service confirmed that Kirill Stremousov, 45, died when his Lexus was involved in a collision with a truck.
Pro-Kremlin Telegram channels reported that the crash happened near Henichensk in Kherson, his personal driver told the @wargonzo project, as images emerged of the twisted remains of the car left on the road in the wake of the accident.
Stremousov was a driving force in organising and supporting the referendum on Kherson’s illegal annexation by Russia.
Recently, he had evacuated civilians from the west bank in Kherson as Ukrainian forces advanced towards the Dnipro River.
The 45-year-old, who was appointed two months after the invasion of Ukraine, was wanted in Kyiv for treason.
Defence minister Sergei Shoigu (L) was hauled on Russian state TV today to give an order to retreat from the city of Kherson. Shoigu was accompanied by General Sergei Surovikin (R) for the heavily stage-managed ordeal, which saw him admit that Kherson had become indefensible in the face of Ukrainian attacks
A Ukrainian tank advances towards the front line in Kherson after Russian commanders said they would be withdrawing, giving up the only regional capital they have taken since the February invasion
A Ukrainian soldier makes a ‘V for victory’ sign from the cockpit of a tank as attacks on Russia continue in Kherson
Ukrainian troops load an artillery shell and powder charges into the back of a howitzer as they prepare to fire on the Russians
Ukrainian troops take a cigarette break between firing artillery rounds at Russian troops in the Kherson region, where heavy fighting has been going on in recent weeks
A destroyed Russian tank in the outskirts of Ivanivka, a liberated village by Ukrainian army after the Russian occupation in Kherson province
Ukraine has been attacking towards Kherson since early August, and recently broke through Russian defensive lines to the north of the city.
But it has been hard to track the progress of the assault ever since, as Ukraine has imposed a news blackout on the region.
Last week, Western officials briefed that Russia appeared to be in the final stages of preparing for a retreat which was being disguised as a civilian evacuation.
They said ‘reinforcements’ being moved to the area were actually conscripts covering the backs of regular troops as they withdrew.
The officials said Russia’s commanders had concluded the city was ‘not worth defending’ and would try to out-last the winter by building a strong defensive line over the other side of the Dnipro.
However, the waters have been muddied by briefings from Kyiv which suggested Russia is actually trying to lure its forces into a trap.
On Monday, Ukraine’s general staff said Russian troops are disguising themselves as civilians and hiding in homes in preparation for urban combat.
They added that defences have been beefed up and Putin’s men looked set to fight for the city. The exact situation on the ground is unclear.
While withdrawing from Kherson is the biggest defeat yet for Putin’s army, it is hardly the first it has suffered.
In April, his soldiers were forced to retreat after a botched attempt to take the capital of Kyiv that saw some of his best units wiped out.
That was followed by an offensive in the Donbas which had largely ground to a halt by late July.
Ukraine then went on the front foot and launched its counter-offensive towards Kherson, having blown up most of the major bridges that supply the city.
A surprise second attack was then launched further to the north in early September, heading east out of the city of Kharkiv, that routed Russian forces.
Almost the entire region was returned to Ukrainian control in just a few days.
Kyiv’s men then made a breakthrough to the north of Kherson in October, pushing Russian troops back to their second line of defence.
Now, In November, Russia looks to have abandoned Kherson altogether.
Taking back the city is a huge propaganda win for Kyiv, which now aims to re-take all of its occupied territory – including areas it has not controlled since 2014.
Kherson is a key waypoint on the road to Crimea, the crown-jewel of Putin’s 2014 war and where President Zelensky has said the current war ‘will end’.
While Ukraine’s troops are not expected to mount an immediate assault across the Dnipro – at least not immediately – it does put positions around Crimea within range of its HIMARS rockets.
Securing the entirety of the west bank of the river will also allow Kyiv to free up units for other attacks, possibly south from Zaporizhzhia towards Melitopol – and then into Crimea from the east.
Women walk under a destroyed building after fighting between Ukrainian and Russian armies in Arkhanhelske, a recent liberated village after the Russian occupantion in Kherson province
A woman tries to save some personal belongings from her destroyed flat in ruins after hard combats in Arkhanhelske, a recent liberated village by Ukrainian army after the Russian occupation in Kherson province
Local resident Serhii Tamara removes debris inside a house of her son, destroyed during a Russian military attack in the village of Novooleksandrivka, in Kherson region
Kirill Stremousov, 45, Deputy Head of the annexed Kherson region, was reportedly killed in a car crash hours before Surovikin gave the order to withdraw from the city
Telegram channels supporting Putin’s regime reported that the crash happened near Henichensk in the Kherson region, his personal driver told the @wargonzo project