Russia demands withdrawal from occupied city; Skeptical Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Russian military said Wednesday it was withdrawing from Ukraine’s only regional capital it has captured, but Kyiv was skeptical and an analyst warned it could be a ruse to draw in forces Ukrainians in a death trap.

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Russian military said Wednesday it was withdrawing from Ukraine’s only regional capital it has captured, but Kyiv was skeptical and an analyst warned it could be a ruse to draw in forces Ukrainians in a death trap. A forced withdrawal from the city of Kherson would mark one of Russia’s worst setbacks in the 8 month war.

Ukrainian authorities have warned against taking the announced plan to retreat from Kherson, a gateway to the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula, and neighboring areas as a fait accompli. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that the Russians are faking a withdrawal from Kherson to draw the Ukrainian army into an entrenched battle in the strategic industrial port city.

If confirmed, the withdrawal from Kherson – to a region of the same name that Moscow illegally annexed in September – would add another setback to Russia’s failed first attempt to capture the capital, Kyiv, and the chaotic and hasty retreat of the administrative region around Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, which itself never fell to the Russians. Russian forces captured Kherson, with a pre-war population of 280,000, early in the invasion, which began on February 24.

Kyiv forces have been focused on the city and cut supply lines in recent weeks as part of a wider counter-offensive in eastern and southern Ukraine that has pushed Russian troops out large tracts of land.

recapture Kherson could allow Ukraine to reclaim lost territory in the Zaporizhzhia region and other southern regions, leading to a possible push into Crimea, which Russia illegally seized in 2014. A Russian retreat is almost certain to increase internal pressure on the Kremlin to aggravate the conflict.

Speaking sternly and with a face of steel on Russian television, Moscow’s top military commander in Ukraine pointed to a map as he reported to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday that it was impossible to supply the city of Kherson and that its defense would be “futile.”

General Sergei Surovikin said 115,000 people had been displaced because their “lives are in constant danger” and proposed a military retreat “in the near future” to the opposite bank of the Dnieper where Kherson is located.

Shoigu agreed with Surovikin’s assessment and ordered him to “begin with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnieper “.

But Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told The Associated Press: “So far, we see no signs that Russia is leaving town altogether, which means these statements may be misinformation.

Yaroslav Yanushevych, the Ukrainian-appointed governor of Kherson, has so far called on residents “not to give in to euphoria”. Another Ukrainian-appointed Kherson regional official, Serhii Khlan, told reporters that Russian forces blew up five bridges to slow the advance of Kyiv forces.

Military analyst Oleg Zhdanov told the AP that Russia’s announced retreat “could very well be a Russian ambush and trap to force the Ukrainians to go on the offensive, to force them into Russian defenses, and in response to hitting with a powerful flanking blow.

As reports of a Russian withdrawal emerged, Zelenskyy met with his senior military staff in Kyiv to discuss the situation, including attempts to retake territory, his website reported without giving details.

In addition to the largely successful counter-offensive, Ukrainian resistance fighters behind the front line worked inside Kherson, with acts of sabotage and assassinations of Moscow-appointed officials.

In this context, reports surfaced on Wednesday that the Moscow-based Kherson regional government official No. 2 was killed in a car accident. There was no indication of foul play. The death of Kirill Stremousov – a prominent regional official who issued public updates on the war almost daily – was reported by Russian state news agencies and his boss, Vladimir Saldo.

The Russian Defense Ministry said months ago that Saldo himself had been poisoned and hospitalized.

The Russian army appears to have been preparing for an orderly withdrawal from Kherson – or an ambush – for months, contrasting with the haphazard retreat from Kharkov region when the invading force left behind a large amount of arms and ammunition. In October, Surovikin appeared to prepare the ground for a possible withdrawal from Kherson, acknowledging that the situation was “pretty difficult” for Moscow. Evacuations of civilians followed, as did symbolic moves, such as moving the remains of Grigory Potemkin, the Russian general who founded Kherson in the 18th century.

In recent months, Ukraine has used US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers to hit a key bridge over the Dnieper at Kherson and a large dam upstream that is also used as a crossing point. The strikes forced Russia to rely on pontoons and ferries which Ukraine also targeted.

This disrupted supply links with Kherson and made Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnieper vulnerable to encirclement. The shortages were exacerbated after a truck bomb on Oct. 8 blew up part of the strategic Kerch Bridge linking the Russian mainland with Crimea, which served as a major supply hub for Russian forces.

Russia wanted to retain Kherson and other positions west of the Dnieper so that it could launch an offensive in other areas and cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea. It would hurt Ukraine’s economy and allow Moscow to build a land corridor to Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region, home to a major Russian military base.

The loss of Kherson could have painful consequences for Russian President Vladimir Putin: more criticism of the Russian military command from hawks, lower troop morale and stronger opposition to his troop mobilization. Abroad, China and India could see the loss as a sign of Kremlin weakness as it needs their support in the face of crippling Western sanctions.

Other setbacks for the Kremlin include chaotic and misguided troop mobilization, poor training and a shortage of arms, clothing and other supplies for troops, a growing international sanctions campaign against Russia and an increase in supplies of advanced Western weapons to Kyiv.

The developments in Kherson came as villages and towns across Ukraine saw heavier fighting and shelling on Wednesday.

At least nine civilians have been killed and 24 injured in 24 hours, the Ukrainian president’s office said. He accused Russia of using explosive drones, rockets, heavy artillery and aircraft to attack eight southeastern regions.

Ukrainian and Russian forces also clashed overnight over Snihurivka, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Kherson.

The president’s office said widespread Russian strikes on The Ukrainian energy system continued. Two towns not far from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – were bombed overnight.


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Sam Mednick, Associated Press

Carol N. Valencia