Russian troops have been told to retreat from the Ukrainian city of Kherson as President Vladimir Putin’s defence generals move to protect their soldiers from the local forces.
The southern city of Kherson was the only regional capital the Russian soldiers had captured since their invasion in February but Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu gave the order to withdraw to the western bank of the Dnipro River on Wednesday.
“Start withdrawing the troops and take all measures to ensure the safe relocation of the personnel, armaments and hardware behind the Dnieper,” Mr Shoigu told Russia’s commander in Ukraine Sergey Surovikin, Russian media outlet TASS reported.
General Surovikin had reported to Mr Shoigu earlier in the day that after “comprehensively assessing” the current situation, the best move was to retreat back to the western bank of the river.
“I understand that this is a very uneasy decision. At the same time, we will preserve, which is the most important thing, the lives of our servicemen and, the combat capability of the group of forces, which is inexpedient to be kept in a limited area on the right bank,” he said.
“In addition, this will release a part of forces and capabilities that will be involved in active operations, including for offensives in other directions in the zone of the operation.”
The retreat is a major blow as it comes just weeks after President Putin announced in September that Kherson, along with Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk, were illegally annexed.
Throughout the week there had been signs Ukraine was beginning to dominate the foreign forces occupying Kherson, with the Russian flag being removed from the administrative building and checkpoints being abandoned.
President Putin’s forces have struggled to hold the advancing Ukrainians at bay, with the local soldiers gaining significant ground and retaking several cities in the east and south in recent weeks.
Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko tweeted that the Russian troops destroyed seven bridges on the bank of the Dnipro River on their way out.
“Ukraine will rebuild fast and push the occupiers out beyond the border,” she wrote.
Ukrainian officials remain sceptical about the Russian withdrawal and raised doubts the invading troops have all retreated from the western bank.
“Actions speak louder than words. We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in the Office of the President, tweeted.
Ukraine “is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements,” Mr Podolyak added.
The advancing Ukrainian troops will likely have to exercise caution as they move to retake Kherson.
The Russians will likely have left mines and booby traps across the city for the advancing soldiers and the retreat could mean President Putin’s troops are willing to bombard the city without concern.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry estimated its troops had eliminated just under 80,000 Russian soldiers and thousands of military vehicles and hardware in its most recent combat losses update.