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LONDON — Russia has prepared the ground to withdraw its troops from Kherson, the largest Ukrainian city occupied by its forces since the February invasion, a Western official said.
Over the past two weeks, the Ukrainian army has made ‘dramatic’ progress in its campaign to regain territory occupied by the Russians, who have been forced to move to a more defensive position and are ‘out of ammunition’ , the official said. Thursday.
Russia is now believed to have temporarily reinforced its forces near Kherson to cover a retreat to the east bank of the Dnipro, and also ordered civilians to evacuate occupied areas on the west bank.
“We are confident in our previous warnings about the prospects of a Russian military withdrawal from their Kherson beachhead,” the official said. “Planning is almost certainly well advanced.”
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Moscow-based Kherson administration, Told Russian state television announced on Thursday that Russian troops could cross the Dnipro in the coming days.
“Most likely, our units, our troops will go to the left bank of the Kherson region,” he said.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also sounded an optimistic note about Ukraine’s impending advances.
“On the question of whether or not the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the west side of the Dnieper in Kherson, I certainly believe that they have the capability to do so,” Austin told a press conference. “Most importantly, Ukrainians believe they have the ability to do this. We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to retake their sovereign territory.
Rumors of a possible Russian withdrawal from the city of Kherson circulated on Thursday after pictures have been posted on social media platforms showing that the Russian flag had disappeared from the city’s main administrative building. However, footage on the Telegram channel showed Russian flags waving from other official buildings.
There is some caution about these reports from the Ukrainian authorities.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Military Command, said it could be a Russian “trick”.
“It can be a provocation in order to give the impression that the settlements have been abandoned, that it is safe to enter them,” she told Ukrainian television. “Given how long they have been preparing for street fighting, the way they position their units, we are aware of the tactics planned and should not be in a hurry to rejoice.”
The Western official warned that any retreat decision “is more about the Russians making long-term strategic decisions about where best to defend themselves in order to be effective, to maintain their own ammunition supplies, to maintain their troop levels and get ready for winter.
“I think in their judgment they decided that the city of Kherson was not worth fighting for, that this natural defensive barrier of the river was extremely valuable to them.”
Kherson Oblast is one of four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed by Russia last month following sham referendums.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to present any withdrawal as an evacuation rather than a retreat. Russian special forces could continue to operate on the west bank of the river even after a withdrawal, the official warned.
In Kherson, “it is probable that most of the echelons of [Russian] The command has now withdrawn across the river, leaving demoralized and leaderless men to face the Ukrainian onslaught,” the official added.
Any retreat would be likely to trigger a further upsurge in criticism of Putin’s leadership from Russian nationalists and could affect his credibility, the official added.
A Russian withdrawal from Kherson would boost morale in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine. However, it is unlikely that Ukrainian forces will be able this winter to retake the Crimean peninsula, occupied by Russian troops since 2014 and also illegally annexed.
The weather is about to turn rainier and colder, which will likely slow the fighting, and the Ukrainians will still have to cross the Dnipro and face a well-fortified Russian defensive line en route to Crimea, the official said.