(WASHINGTON) — In a major setback for Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, Russia’s defense minister has ordered Russian troops to retreat from the key southern city of Kherson and set up defensive positions across the Dnieper River as Ukrainian troops continued with a counteroffensive targeting the city.
The fighting around the city expected to continue as Russian troops move across the Dnieper River into defensive positions taking advantage of the natural border offered by the river.
The retreat is a major setback for Russia’s beleaguered military operations inside of Ukraine as Kherson was the largest Ukrainian city under Russian control and the only major provincial capital seized by Russian troops early in the war that is now in its eighth month.
It is even more significant given that Kherson was one of the four Ukrainian provinces that had just been illegally annexed by Russia.
“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,” Sergeii Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister said he had approved the withdrawal of Russia’s troops across the Dnieper River because defending the city had become “futile” and very difficult to resupply.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a senior Ukrainian official, described Russian forces as having been “knocked out of Kherson.”
“The Russian army does not leave Kherson,” he wrote on Facebook. “It was knocked out with heavy battles, with losses methodically gnawed through the enemy’s defenses, work on crossings, hard and bloody military labor.”
“Dear people of Kherson. Here we are returning. Here you are returning. Welcome home,” he wrote.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy urged caution about the Russian announcement tweeting that “actions speak louder than words. We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight.”
A Russian troop withdrawal from Kherson had been telegraphed for weeks beginning with the evacuation of tens of thousands of Russian civilians from the city as Ukraine continued to target the bridges that were the main supply routes into the city across the Dnieper River.
“I found it interesting that they waited until after the election to make that judgment which we knew for some time that they were going to be doing,” President Biden said at a White House news conference on Wednesday. “And it’s evidence of the fact that they’ve got some real problems, the Russian military.”
“At a minimum it will lead to time for everyone to recalibrate their positions over the winter period,” said Biden. “It remains to be seen whether there’ll be a judgment made as to whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia.”
Last week, a western official told reporters that it appeared that Russia was preparing for a military withdrawal from Kherson because most Russian commanders had left the city and crossed the Dnieper River, leaving behind troops that he characterized as demoralized and leaderless.
On Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman told reporters that it appeared that the recent arrival of Russian troops in Kherson could mean that Russia was “looking to defend that territory for the long term or it could be part of a rearguard action as they look to retrograde out of that area.”
The western official indicated that the Russian troops that had recently arrived in the region were some of the 300,000 recently mobilized Russian reservists who were arriving in some cases only 10 to 15 days after their mobilization and were “woefully equipped and prepared.”
The official predicted that when Russia carried out a pullout from Kherson that “we might imagine an uptick in domestic criticism of (Russian) President Putin.”
Putin has previously received criticism from pro-war Russian military bloggers who have called for Russia to fully mobilize to boost the scale of its military operations inside of Ukraine.
But given high Russian military casualty rates and supply line failures the western official said it would be difficult for Russia to carry out operations this winter especially when “Russian morale is very low.”
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