Wary Ukraine advances after Russia announces Kherson withdrawal

British intelligence says Russian troops have destroyed bridges and probably laid landmines during their retreat

A man poses next to a Ukrainian flag in Kalynivske, in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Reuters
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Ukrainian troops have made cautious advances following Russia's announcement of its withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson.

Kyiv has remained sceptical about Moscow’s retreat, but its troops continue to push ahead, having advanced seven kilometres and recaptured 12 settlements in the past 24 hours.

“We continue to conduct the offensive operation in line with our plan,” Ukraine's army chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said in a post on Telegram.

A small group of Ukrainian soldiers was shown on Ukraine's state TV in the centre of the village of Snihurivka about 55km north of Kherson, the first regional capital Moscow captured after it invaded Ukraine in February.

They were greeted by dozens of residents in a square, with a Ukrainian flag fluttering from a pole behind them.

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“Today, on November 10, 2022, Snihurivka was liberated by the forces of the 131st Separate Intelligence Battalion. Glory to Ukraine!” a commander declared as the locals applauded, cheered and filmed the soldiers on their phones.

“Our emotions must be restrained. The enemy does not bring us gifts,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address on Wednesday.

“Therefore, we move very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk.”

In a call with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday, Mr Zelenskyy agreed that any Russian withdrawal from the occupied city of Kherson would demonstrate “strong progress” for Ukrainian forces.

However, both leaders said it was right to express caution about the withdrawal “until the Ukrainian flag was raised over the city,” a representative for Mr Sunak said.

“The prime minister praised the bravery of the Ukrainian armed forces and reiterated the UK's unwavering military, economic and political support,” they added.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said he will “believe it when we see it”, when asked about Russia withdrawing from the Ukrainian city of Kherson.

It would be a “significant psychological blow” for Russian troops if they left the southern city, he said.

He was speaking at a meeting of ministers from the Joint Expeditionary Force nations in Edinburgh.

Along with other ministers, Mr Wallace stressed it is Ukraine’s choice whether they enter peace talks with Russia.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would monitor Russia's movements but that Moscow's troops were clearly “under heavy pressure”.

“If they leave Kherson, it would be another victory for Ukraine,” Mr Stoltenberg said, after talks with Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Thursday.

Sir Richard Shirreff, former deputy supreme allied commander of Nato, said Kyiv was right to be cautious about the withdrawal.

“We need to know whether or not the Russians are or are not withdrawing,” he told BBC radio on Thursday.

“Clearly, the Ukrainians rightly are very, very sceptical,” Sir Richard said.

“However, if this is a Russian withdrawal and the Ukrainians can capitalise on it, then I think this hastens the Ukrainians achieving their military objectives, providing the West continues to provide the support needed.”

He said the West must now “double down” on its support, including all capabilities required for offensive manoeuvres and air defence in particular, “because you can sort of guarantee that any withdrawal will be followed by yet more terrorist attacks on Ukrainian cities and utilities”.

On Wednesday, Moscow ordered its troops to leave the city in a major setback for President Vladimir Putin’s nine-month war on Ukraine.

Defence minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russian forces would retreat from the west bank of the Dnipro, which includes Kherson.

Mr Shoigu's top commander told him the move was made to save the lives of Russian troops and better defend positions across the river.

The Russians “are moving out but not as much as would be taking place if it was a full pull-out or regrouping,” Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to Mr Zelenskyy, said in a video posted online on Wednesday night.

Russian forces were destroying bridges as they left and mining roads, Mr Arestovych said.

British intelligence said Russia’s withdrawal has been slowed by limited crossing points over the Dnipro.

“With limited crossing points, Russian forces will be vulnerable in crossing the Dnipro River. It is likely that the withdrawal will take place over several days with defensive positions and artillery fires covering withdrawing forces,” the Ministry of Defence tweeted.

It also issued a warning about landmines.

“In retreating, Russian forces have destroyed multiple bridges and likely laid mines to slow and delay advancing Ukrainian forces,” the ministry said.

A senior adviser to Ukraine's president said on Thursday Russia wanted to turn Kherson into a “city of death,” accusing Russia of mining everything from apartments to sewers and planning to shell Kherson from the other side of the River Dnipro.

Political adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said: “RF (Russia) wants to turn Kherson into a 'city of death'. The Russian military mines everything they can: apartments, sewers. Artillery on the left bank plans to turn the city into ruins,” Podolyak wrote on Twitter.

“This is what [the] 'Russian world' looks like: came, robbed, celebrated, killed 'witnesses', left ruins and left.”

President Joe Biden told a news conference in Washington that the US “knew for some time” that Russia was preparing to pull troops from Kherson and called it “evidence of the fact that they have some real problems, the Russian military.”

The announcement of the abandonment of Kherson in the south — a month after Mr Putin annexed the area and declared it part of Russia forever — follows Russia's defeat in the north and parts of the east, leaving Moscow with only limited gains from its war.

Russian forces are still holding on to some territory in the south, including a land route connecting Russia to Crimea, which it seized in 2014. Russian troops are also present in some cities in the east that they mostly obliterated while capturing them.

But it has come at a heavy price to both sides.

Gen Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said more than 100,000 Russians, and probably the same number of Ukrainian forces, have been killed or wounded in the war.

The general, who was speaking at the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday night, put the toll of Russian forces killed or injured since the war began in February at “well over 100,000”. He added that about the same number of Ukrainian forces have been killed or wounded.

He said that a Russian retreat from Kherson and a potential standoff over the winter could provide a chance for negotiations to end the war.

But others said it is not the time to encourage Ukraine to the negotiating table.

“This is a validation of Ukraine’s military strategy and the approach taken by its senior leadership. They are succeeding and the Russians know it,” tweeted Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general.

“Now is NOT the time to force Ukraine into negotiations. The Russians might be weakened but they are not giving up on their territorial aspirations. They will have to be beaten on the battlefield and pushed out of Ukraine.”

Sir Richard said the shape of any negotiations “is up to President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians”.

“And it’s up to them to decide when and what they want to negotiate. It is their country that has been despoiled and had their people massacred and we need to do everything we can to support them,” he added.

The British government said on Thursday that it had frozen assets together worth £18 billion ($20.5bn) held by Russian oligarchs, other people and entities since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has passed Libya and Iran to become Britain's most-sanctioned nation, according to the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, part of the finance ministry.

Updated: November 11, 2022, 5:57 AM
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