Russia withdrawing, Ukrainian official fears ‘city of death’

A local resident works to clean the debris from damaged house after Russian shelling in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)

KYIV, Ukraine | Russia said it began withdrawing troops from a strategic Ukrainian city Thursday, providing a potential turning point in the grinding war, while a Ukrainian official warned that Russian land mines could render Kherson a “city of death.”

Kyiv acknowledged Moscow’s forces had no choice but to flee Kherson but remained cautious, fearing an ambush. With Ukrainian officials tight-lipped with their assessments, reporters not present and spotty communications, it was difficult to know what was happening in the port city, where the residents who remained after tens of thousands fled were afraid to leave their homes.

A forced pullout from Kherson — the only provincial capital Moscow had captured after invading Ukraine— would mark one of Russia’s worst setbacks of the war. Recapturing the city could provide Ukraine a launching pad for supplies and troops to try to win back other lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.

Ukrainian forces seem to be scoring more battlefield successes elsewhere n the Kherson region. The armed forces commander-in-chief, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, said Kyiv’s forces have advanced 36.5 kilometers (22.7 miles) and retaken 41 villages and towns since Oct. 1 in the province, which the Kremlin illegally annexed. That included 12 settlements on Wednesday.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the Russian troops laid mines throughout Kherson as they witdrew to turn it into a “city of death” and predicted they would shell it from occupied areas across the Dnieper River.

From these new positions, the Kremlin could try to escalate the 8 1/2-month war, which U.S. assessments showed may already have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered a troop withdrawal from Kherson and nearby areas on Wednesday after his top general in Ukraine reported that a loss of supply routes during Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive made a defense “futile.”

Shoigu’s ministry reported Thursday a “maneuver of units of the Russian group” to the Dnieper River’s eastern bank, also known as its left bank. Some Western observers, including the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, believe the Kremlin’s forces were forced to pull out but that a full withdrawal could take time.

On Thursday, Ukrainian officials appeared to soften the skepticism they had expressed over whether the Russians were really on the run or trying to trap Ukraine’s soldiers. “The enemy had no other choice but to resort to fleeing,” armed forces chief Zaluzhny said, because Kyiv’s army has destroyed supply systems and disrupted Russia’s local military command.

Still, he said the Ukrainian military could not confirm a Russian withdrawal.

Alexander Khara, of the Kyiv-based think tank Center for Defense Strategies, echoed those concerns, saying he remained fearful that Russian forces could destroy a dam upriver from Kherson and flood the city’s approaches. The former Ukrainian diplomat also warned of booby traps and other possible dangers retreating Russians left behind.

“I would be surprised if the Russians had not set up something, some surprises for Ukraine,” Khara said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who just over a month ago celebrated the annexation of Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions – and vowed to defend Russian territory by any means – has not commented on the withdrawal.

A resident said Kherson was deserted Thursday and that explosions could be heard from around Antonivskiy Bridge — a key Dnieper River crossing that Ukrainian forces have repeatedly bombarded.

“Life in the city seems to have stopped. Everyone has disappeared somewhere and no one knows what will happen next,” said Konstantin, a resident who spoke on condition his last name was withheld for security reasons.

He said Russian flags have disappeared from the city’s administrative buildings, and there is no sign of the Russian military personnel who earlier moved into the apartments of evacuated residents. Russian state news agency Tass reported that emergency services such as police officers and medical workers would leave once the full military pullout was done.

Halyna Lugova, head of the Ukrainian administration of Kherson city, told Ukrainian television Thursday that the Russian military was moving vehicles towards the Antonivskiy Bridge. Lugova, who is now based in Ukrainian-controlled territory, described conditions in the city as brutal.

Kherson remains without power, heating and internet service, gas stations in the city are closed, and there is no fuel, she said. The city also has run out of medications for cancer and diabetes patients.

Ukrainian officials have been cautious at other times in declaring victories against a Russian force that at least initially outgunned and outnumbered Ukraine’s armed forces.

Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at international affairs think-tank Chatham House, said the reticence explains “why, until Ukrainians are in the city, they don’t want to declare that they have it (in) control.”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was similarly careful in his assessment. He spoke Thursday to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his office said they agreed “it was right to continue to exercise caution until the Ukrainian flag was raised over the city.”

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a day earlier that he believed a retreat was underway, but that Russia had amassed 20,000 to 30,000 troops in Kherson and that a full withdrawal could take several weeks.

One analyst noted that the Ukrainian army has destroyed bridges and roads as part of its counteroffensive, making a quick transfer of Russian troops across the Dnieper River impossible.

“The main question is whether the Ukrainians will give the Russians the opportunity to calmly withdraw, or fire at them during the crossing to the left bank,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. “The personnel can be taken out on boats, but the equipment needs to be taken out only on barges and pontoons, and this is very easily shelled by the Ukrainian army.”

Putin’s allies rushed to defend the retreat as tough, but necessary. However, Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov broke ranks and described the move as “Russia’s biggest geopolitical loss since the collapse of the Soviet Union” and warned that “political consequences of this huge loss will be really big.”

In other developments:

— A Kremlin spokesman said Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not attend the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia next week, avoiding a possible confrontation with the United States and its allies over his war in Ukraine.

— The head of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said Thursday that three civilians had been killed in the region and 12 wounded in the last 24 hours. Writing on Telegram, the official also reported that law enforcement officers found the bodies of five people killed during the Russian occupation of the town of Yarova, which Ukraine retook on Sept. 19.

— Russian forces overnight pounded the city of Nikopol and nearby areas, Dnipropetrovsk Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. The shelling wounded a 80-year-old woman and damaged 10 residential buildings, a gas station, a gas pipeline and a power line. The neighboring Zaporizhzhia region was also shelled Thursday, according to the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko.

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