Russia ordered its troops to leave Ukraine’s city of Kherson, the first major regional center seized in its invasion, in a highly symbolic setback for President Vladimir Putin.
With Kyiv’s forces pressing their counteroffensive in the region bordering occupied Crimea, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a televised briefing Wednesday ordered the troops to withdraw from the western bank of the Dnipro River and move to the other shore.
“I understand that this is a very difficult decision,” Sergei Surovikin, the general in charge of Russian forces, told Shoigu in proposing the move. “At the same time, we will save the lives of our servicemen and, in general, the combat capability of the group of troops, which is futile to keep on the right bank in a limited area.”
The retreat marks another major defeat for the Kremlin after Ukraine retook large areas of territory around Kharkiv in the east over the summer. Kherson was the first regional capital to fall in Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and was among the territories the Kremlin claimed to annex in illegal referendums held in September. Putin said at the time the areas would be Russian forever.
But Ukrainian forces methodically cut the supply lines to Russia’s garrison in the southern city, tightening the noose with steady advances on the ground. In the last few weeks, Russian occupation officials began evacuating civilians and moved their administration to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, further from the front line.
Russia also began pulling troops back, apparently hoping to avoid the chaotic retreats seen in earlier routs, when Moscow’s forces left large amounts of equipment and munitions behind.
Ukraine started a massive counteroffensive in the summer, retaking almost all of the Kharkiv region and some locations in Luhansk to the east.
Putin responded by escalating his now nine-month offensive, mobilizing at least 300,000 reservists, annexing four regions and unleashing a barrage of attacks on civilian targets. Starting Oct. 10, Russia has aimed hundreds of missiles and drones at critical power infrastructure across Ukraine, damaging about 40% of the country’s energy facilities, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
Ukraine, meanwhile, is seeking to recover all its lands occupied by Russia, including Crimea and part of the eastern Donbas that Moscow has held since 2014 as well as territory that was taken since Feb. 24.
The capture of the city of Kherson does not yet take Ukraine into a position where they can threaten Crimea, due to fortified Russian defensive lines, according to a Western official.