Kherson, the largest city taken over by Russian troops since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, is likely to soon return to Kiev’s control as Russia’s defense minister and its top general in charge of the Ukrainian campaign announced a retreat from the entire right, or western bank of the Dnieper river.
On Wednesday, Nov. 9, General Sergei Surovikin, the commander of joint Russian forces in Ukraine, said the retreat was in order because it was impossible to keep troops in Kherson city adequately supplied.
“We will save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right bank is futile,” Surovikin said in the televised comments, adding that some of the troops could be redeployed to other fronts.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of defense, responded: “I agree with your conclusions and proposals. Proceed with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to transfer forces across the river.”
The Dnieper or Dnipro bisects the territory of Ukraine from north to south. Earlier on in the Kremlin’s “special military operation” that began this February, Russian units were able to cross the Dnieper and quickly seize Kherson, which had a prewar population of around 300,000.
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But Russia largely stopped advancing by April and has suffered major setbacks in the war due to a lack of troop strength, preparedness, and massive Ukrainian mobilizations as well as Western support. In August, Ukraine managed to retake a large swath of territory in the eastern Donbass region, using highly mobile units to overwhelm the thin Russian defenses.
In response, Moscow called up over 300,000 reservists to deploy to the conflict, and annexed four Ukrainian provinces, or oblasts, that are partially under Russian occupation.
Ukraine has launched several waves of offensives to liberate Kherson, seeing some successes in early October when it retook a slice of territory towards the northeast of the city. But that offensive stalled by around Oct. 4, with many Ukrainian troops falling to ambushes and well-fortified Russian defenses.
The new retreat announced by Russia was preceded by the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from Kherson.
- Residents in Kherson Flee City Ahead of Expected Ukrainian Offensive
- Putin Endorses Evacuations From Kherson Region Amid Protracted Ukraine Offensive
Earlier, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up.
Photos on the internet and verified by Reuters showed the span of the Darivka bridge on the main highway east out of Kherson completely collapsed into the water of the Inhulets River, a tributary of the Dnieper.
Ukrainians who posted photos of the destroyed bridge over the Inhulets on Wednesday speculated that it had been blown up by Russian troops in preparation for their retreat.
A ‘difficult but right choice’
Popular Russian war bloggers said the retreat would be a bitter blow.
“Apparently we will leave the city, no matter how painful it is to write about it now,” said the War Gonzo blog, which has more than 1.3 million subscribers on Telegram.
“In simple terms, Kherson can’t be held with bare hands,” it said. “Yes, this is a black page in the history of the Russian army. Of the Russian state. A tragic page.”
Russian news agencies reported the death of Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian administration in Kherson, saying he had been killed in a car crash, though offered no further details. Several prominent Russian officials in occupied Ukraine have been assassinated after taking office.
Public figures in Russia have defended the retreat as a matter of military necessity.
“After weighing all the pros and cons, General Surovikin made the difficult but right choice between senseless sacrifices for the sake of loud statements and saving the priceless lives of soldiers,” said Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen regional leader who has many of his own soldiers deployed in Ukraine.
While noting the “difficult combat territory” around Kherson and praising Surovikin for acting “like a real military general, not afraid of criticism,” Kadryov questioned why more preparations were not made to bolster Kherson’s defenses.
“Kherson is a very difficult area without the possibility of a stable regular supply of ammunition and the formation of a strong, reliable rear. Why was this not done from the first days of the special operation? This is another question. But in this difficult situation, the general acted wisely and far-sightedly – he evacuated the civilian population and ordered a regrouping,” he said.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group which is fighting for Russia in Ukraine, was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying that Surovikin had made a tough decision and taken “responsibility for the lives of soldiers.” This, he said, “does not do honor to Russian weapons, but emphasizes the personal qualities of the commander.”
In spite of the Russian announcement, Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, warned that Russian troops remained in Kherson and could keep fighting to hold the city as long as possible.
“Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal,” he said in a statement to Reuters.
The loss of Kherson and the right bank of the Dnieper will make it difficult for the Russians to contest Ukrainian access to the Black Sea. Previously the Russian forces had tried to take Mykolaiv and threaten Odessa, both major ports.
Reuters contributed to this report.