Russia orders troops to leave Kherson in major retreat

City was the first regional capital to fall after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24

A Ukrainian soldier in a trench on the front line in the Kherson region. EPA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Russia on Wednesday ordered its troops to leave the Ukrainian city of Kherson, the first major regional centre seized in its invasion, in a highly symbolic setback for President Vladimir Putin.

Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions that Russia declared it had annexed in September, shortly after being forced to withdraw from swathes of territory in the north-eastern Kharkiv region.

The announcement of the retreat came just hours after officials said the Moscow-installed deputy head of the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, a key supporter of annexation, had died in a car crash.

Nato said it wanted to see the effects of the withdrawal announcement on the ground.

In televised comments, Russia's Gen Sergey Surovikin, who is in overall command of the war, said it was no longer possible to keep Kherson supplied.

“We will save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right [western] bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts,” Gen Surovikin said.

With Kyiv’s forces pressing their counteroffensive in the region bordering occupied Crimea, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu then ordered the troops to withdraw from the western bank of the Dnipro River and move to the other shore.

Mr Shoigu said: “I agree with your conclusions and proposals. For us, the life and health of Russian servicemen is always a priority. We must also take into account the threats to the civilian population.

The announcement from Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu had been expected by influential war bloggers. Reuters

“Proceed with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnipro River.”

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo 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.

“Ukraine is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.”

The announcement had been expected by Russia's influential war bloggers, who described it as a bitter blow.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that it was “encouraging” to see Ukrainian gains, after Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu ordered his troops to withdraw from Kherson.

Speaking in Downing Street, where he was meeting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Mr Stoltenberg said: “It is encouraging to see how the brave Ukrainian forces are able to liberate more Ukrainian territory.

“The victories, the gains the Ukrainian armed forces are making belong to the brave, courageous Ukrainian soldiers, but of course the support they receive from the United Kingdom, from Nato allies and partners is also essential.”

Why Kherson is important

Ukrainian forces had zeroed in on the strategic industrial city, which sits on the Dnipro River that divides the region and the country itself.

During the summer, Ukrainian troops launched relentless attacks to reclaim parts of the larger province.

Officials in the Kremlin-installed regional government reported that more than 70,000 residents were evacuated in late October, but Ukrainian authorities questioned the claim.

Ukrainian forces cut supply lines to Kherson city, though the Russian-backed administration had already moved its operations to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, farther from the front line.

The Kherson region borders Crimea and provides the Russian military with land links from Russia to the Black Sea peninsula that it seized in 2014.

Ukraine retaking parts of Kherson also brings its long-range artillery closer to Crimea.

The region includes the mouth of the wide Dnipro River and the regional capital, Kherson city, which is on the west bank of the river. It is the only place where Russia has a presence on the west bank of the river and Moscow had heavily reinforced troop numbers there in recent months.

In addition, military analyst Oleksander Musiyenko said: “It's clear the loss of Kherson and the Kherson bridgehead will have consequences for Russia's image and will be viewed negatively inside Russia.”

The retreat would represent a major defeat for the Kremlin after Ukraine retook large areas around Kharkiv in the east over the summer.

Kherson was the first regional capital to fall in Russia’s February 24 invasion and was among the territories the Kremlin annexed in illegal referendums held in September.

Updated: November 09, 2022, 7:10 PM