Birds fly over a damaged building in the village of Archanhelske in the Kherson region, formerly occupied by Russian forces, on November 3, 2022. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)
MOSCOW, Russia (AFP) – Russia on Wednesday ordered its troops to withdraw from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, in another major blow to its campaign amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Officials in Kyiv reacted with caution, saying the Russian army is unlikely to leave the strategic city without a fight, while US President Joe Biden suggested the withdrawal was evidence Moscow had “real problems” on the battlefield.
“Start withdrawing troops,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a televised meeting with Russia’s commander in Ukraine Sergei Surovikin.
The commander had proposed the “difficult decision” to withdraw from the city and establish defenses on the east bank of the Dnipro River.
The city of Kherson was the first urban center captured by Russia during its “military special operation” and the only regional capital controlled by Moscow’s forces since the February 24 offensive began.
Ukrainian troops have been taking villages en route to the Black Sea city for weeks, and Kremlin-installed leaders in Kherson are pulling out civilians.
Speaking in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his army was moving “very cautiously, without emotions, without taking unnecessary risks, in the interests of liberating our entire country and minimizing casualties”.
“The enemy doesn’t give us gifts, doesn’t make ‘goodwill gestures’, we win everything,” Zelenskyy said in his daily address to the nation, adding that all Ukraine’s gains come at the expense of “the lives lost by our heroes.” walk. ”
Presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said some Russian troops remained in the city.
“We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” he said on Twitter.
And some Ukrainian civilians were also skeptical.
Andriy Orikhovskyi, a 46-year-old financier, told AFP in Kyiv: “The Russian leadership is playing something, you shouldn’t trust them… I think they are up to something. We’ll have to wait and see what our official sources say.”
– 115,000 civilians removed –
In Moscow, Kremlin supporters rushed to justify the decision.
The head of Russia’s state media group RT, Margarita Simonyan, said the withdrawal was necessary to avoid leaving Russian troops stranded on the west bank of the Dnieper and “to clear the way to Crimea”.
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov said the decision was “difficult but fair”.
Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group and critical of Russia’s military strategy in the campaign, was more ambiguous.
“It is important not to torment yourself, not to dwell in paranoia, but to draw conclusions and work on mistakes,” wrote his press service on social media.
Russia’s loss of the Kherson region would give Ukraine back a vital gateway to the Sea of Azov, leaving President Vladimir Putin little of a campaign that has left him an outcast in Western eyes.
The withdrawal will put pressure on Russian control of the rest of the Kherson region, which forms a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014.
Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia in September, shortly after it was forced to withdraw from parts of the territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
The announcement of the withdrawal came just hours after officials said Moscow-based deputy head of the Kherson region Kirill Stremousov, a key supporter of the annexation, died in a car accident.
As Ukrainian troops gradually advance south, Surovikin told Shoigu on Wednesday that about 115,000 people have been displaced from the west bank of the Dnipro, which includes the city of Kherson.
Ukraine has defined these population movements towards Russia or Russian-occupied territory as “deportations”.
– “Strong bipartisan support” –
In Washington, where election officials were still counting votes after Tuesday’s crucial midterm elections, Biden said the Kherson withdrawal showed Moscow’s military weaknesses.
“It’s proof that they have some real problems, Russia, the Russian military,” Biden told reporters in Washington.
Biden’s Democratic Party appeared to narrowly lose control of the House of Representatives to Republicans, some of whom have promised to review US military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But Biden promised Washington’s support for Kyiv would remain unchanged.
“On foreign policy, I hope we will continue this bipartisan approach to countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” Biden added.
Earlier in the day, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg spoke in the same direction. “It is absolutely clear that there is strong bipartisan support in the United States for continued support for Ukraine, and that has not changed,” Stoltenberg said after talks with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
With the Russian offensive in its ninth month, the Western powers have increased military and financial support for Kyiv.
In the latest announcement, the European Commission on Wednesday proposed a €18 billion ($18 billion) bailout package for Ukraine in 2023 in the form of loans.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the aid as “true solidarity”.
The Kremlin said relations between Moscow and Washington would remain “poor” after the US midterm elections.
“Our existing relations are bad and they will remain bad,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
© Agence France-Presse