A Russian-installed occupation official in southern Ukraine said on Thursday Moscow was likely to pull its troops from the west bank of the Dnipro River, signalling a huge retreat that, if confirmed, would be a major turning point in the war.
Still, Ukrainian officials and Western analysts remained cautious about signs that Russia was abandoning the area, and there was silence from higher-ups in Moscow over what would amount to one of Russia’s most humiliating retreats so far.
Kyiv said it was still fighting in the area and was wary that Moscow could be setting a trap by feigning a pull-out.
“Most likely our units, our soldiers, will leave for the left (eastern) bank,” Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy civilian administrator of the Kherson region, said in an interview with Solovyov Live, a pro-Kremlin online media outlet.
The area includes Kherson city, capital of the region of the same name, and the only major city Russia has captured intact since its invasion in February. It also includes one side of a huge dam across the Dnipro which controls the water supply to irrigate Crimea, the peninsula Russia has occupied since 2014.
Previously, Russia had vehemently denied its forces were planning to withdraw from the area, one of the most important new conquests which President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed to Russia at the end of September.
Speculation swirled on Thursday over whether Russia was indeed pulling out, after photos circulated on the internet showing the main administrative building in Kherson city with Russia’s flag no longer flying atop it. Ukraine said those images could be Russian disinformation.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, said it could be a Russian trap.
“This could be a manifestation of a particular provocation, in order to create the impression that the settlements are abandoned, that it is safe to enter them, while they are preparing for street battles,” she said in televised comments.
“We continue fighting, also in the Kherson direction, despite the fact that the enemy is trying to convince us that they are leaving the settlements and creating the effect of a total evacuation,” she said.
Russia has fought for months to hang on to the pocket of land it holds on the west bank at the mouth of the river that bisects Ukraine. Moscow had sent tens of thousands of troops to reinforce the area, one of its biggest battlefield priorities.
Ukraine has targetted the main river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply its huge force on the west bank. Ukrainian troops have been advancing along the river since bursting through the Russian frontline there at the start of October, although their advance had slowed in recent days.
Russia had ordered civilians to evacuate from occupied areas on the west bank, and this week also ordered them out of a 15 km buffer zone on the east bank as well. Kyiv says those evacuation orders amount to forced deportation, a war crime.
Stremousov urged civilians remaining in Kherson city to leave immediately, saying they were putting their lives in danger.
Ukraine maintains tight secrecy about the progress of its troops at the front in Kherson but has so far been publicly cautious about any suggestions that Russia is vacating positions there. Ukrainian troops on the front line last week, visited by Reuters, said they saw no evidence Russian forces were withdrawing and believed they were in fact reinforcing.
Michael Kofman, a top U.S. expert on the Russian military who has just returned from the Ukrainian side of the Kherson front, said Moscow’s intentions were unclear. He doubted Russia would abandon the west bank of the river “without being forcibly pressed out”, but he also “could be wrong about this”.
“The situation in Kherson is clear as mud,” tweeted Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses think tank. “Russian forces seemed to withdraw from some parts, evacuated, and drew down, but also reinforced with mobilised personnel. The fighting there is difficult. Despite constrained supply, Russian forces do not appear to be out of ammo.”