Russia is retreating from the key Ukrainian city of Kherson, with commanders already abandoning troops following “spectacular changes in the territorial control”, western officials have revealed.
The development took place as Russian forces in Ukraine run “critically short” of artillery ammunition, forcing them to rely on North Korean imports as well as killer drones from Iran.
Newly mobilised Russian troops are also appearing in operational areas of Ukraine without weapons and with their morale already deeply diminished, a media briefing was told.
The loss of Kherson would prove humiliating for President Vladimir Putin, as it is the only major city that Russia managed to capture since its February 24 invasion
Its loss now appears imminent, with troops left without senior commanders. The Russian flag has also been removed from the city’s administrative building.
“We are confirming the prospects of Russian military withdrawal from the Kherson bridgehead and planning is almost certainly well advanced,” a western official said.
“Most echelons of command have now withdrawn across the river, leaving behind demoralised and leaderless men to the face Ukrainian assaults. A substantial portion of his men are recently mobilised reservists and they are often woefully equipped and unprepared.”
The retreat will be “presented as an evacuation” but the loss could lead to an “uptick in pointed domestic criticism of Russia's national leadership”.
The planned withdrawal was to bring Russian forces back across the 1,000-metre-wide Dnipro River to form strong defensive lines on its eastern bank.
But questioned by The National, an official admitted they “cannot discount” the possibility of some of the estimated 20,000 Russian soldiers in Kherson being left behind and forced to surrender.
“The commanders are already across the river, which is terrible leadership in any environment,” he said.
“Could Russian forces be trapped? It depends on the decision-making processes and on what timescale they activate things but conducting a retreat brings risk with it.”
The judgment of Moscow’s commanders was that Kherson “isn't worth fighting for” and the natural barrier defence of the Dnipro “is extremely valuable to them”, the official said.
There was also a possibility that Russian special forces would “continue to operate on the other side of the bank”, potentially carrying out reconnaissance and sabotage.
However, Ukrainian progress towards the city was at times “very slow going” but with “some instances of great success”.
Taking Kherson will also give Kyiv a key port city on the Black Sea as well as act as a significant blow to Mr Putin’s standing.
However, officials said it was unlikely there would be a swift advance towards annexed Crimea 90 kilometres away, as Russia has robustly defended the ground.
Russian military doctrine is heavily reliant on artillery bombardments to flatten the enemy before advancing but stockpiles are so depleted, they are relying on foreign supplies.
“The most glaring failure in Russia's inventory is an increasingly critical shortage of artillery ammunition,” the official said. “In the Russian way of war, artillery enables everything else, without guns or rocket launchers being fired everything grinds to a halt.”
Another official confirmed US intelligence reports that North Korea had supplied a “significant number of artillery shells to Russia”.
“The fact that Russia has gone to the steps of seeking to source ‘dumb’ munitions from North Korea demonstrates that there are supply problems,” another official said.
It now appears that Moscow’s plan is to pull back its depleted invasion force to stronger defensive lines where they will be more easily supplied during the winter freeze.
This will also buy Russia time to replenish its war stocks when the operational tempo slows until spring. But Ukraine may still have the resources to conduct extensive winter warfare.