Written by Marc Santora, Andrew E. Kramer, Dan Bilefsky, Ivan Nechepurenko and Anton Troianovski
The Kremlin on Wednesday announced a retreat of Russian forces from the strategically important city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, a concession to military reality eight months after capturing the area, and one of the most significant reversals of President Vladimir Putin’s war effort.
The withdrawal order came from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a meeting with top military leaders that was broadcast on Russian state television, after Gen. Sergei Surovikin, Moscow’s commander in Ukraine, explained that heavy shelling by advancing Ukrainian forces had made the Russian position west of the Dnieper River, where Kherson is, untenable.
“Go ahead with the pullout of troops and take all measures to ensure safe transfer of troops, weapons and equipment to the other bank of the Dnieper River,” Shoigu said.
By day’s end there was strong evidence that Russians were withdrawing from the territory they held west of the river, Ukrainian officials said, as Ukrainian soldiers entered some front-line villages that had been under Russian control in the morning.
Wary of a possible ruse meant to lure Ukrainian troops into a trap, the officials cautioned that they were not yet sure about the status of Russian forces within the city, but as the day went on they grew more confident that the pullback was real.
“We have signs they are pulling out,” moving heavy equipment first and then infantry, said Roman Kostenko, a Ukrainian army colonel and chair of the defense and intelligence committee in parliament. “They blew up bridges that would have allowed our forces to advance. We see them leaving population centers, but in some they leave soldiers behind to cover their movements.”
The announced retreat is one of the most significant setbacks for Russia in the war Putin started in February. Kherson, an important port and industrial city seized during the early days of the war, has been a strategic and symbolic prize of the invasion — the only regional capital Russia captured. It gave Moscow an important foothold west of the Dnieper, from where it expanded and which it hoped to use as a base to push farther west, all the way to the critical port city of Odesa.
News of the withdrawal drew anguished and angry responses from some prominent Russian hawks, while others described it as a sensible, tactical retreat to a more defensible front.
“The decision is shocking to thousands and millions of people who are fighting for Russia, dying for Russia, believe in Russia and share the beliefs of the Russian world,” wrote Yuri Kotyonok, an influential military blogger.
Boris Rozhin, a Russian military analyst, called the retreat Russia’s “most serious military defeat since 1991.” In a Telegram post, he wrote, “If there won’t be any upcoming successes with major towns captured and no advancement during the winter offensive, the series of military setbacks would accumulate a much greater internal discontent than sanctions.”
But Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian analyst who studies Putin for her political analysis firm R.Politik, said in a phone interview: “This just confirms, in my view, how pragmatic Putin is. He’s not as crazy as we thought.”
According to recent news reports, the Biden administration has urged Ukraine privately to enter into peace talks with Russia. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and his top aides made clear this week that, if anything, their position has hardened — that Russia must first leave Ukraine completely, and that it must pay war reparations — and that, in any case, Moscow isn’t interested in negotiations.
President Joe Biden said at a White House news conference Wednesday that “it remains to be seen whether Ukraine is willing to compromise.” He later insisted that it was up to the Ukrainians whether to enter talks or make concessions.
“They’re going to both lick their wounds, decide what they’re going to do over the winter and decide whether or not they’re going to compromise,” he said.
On Kherson, Biden said he had expected a Russian retreat. “It’s evidence of the fact that they have some real problems, the Russian military,” he said.
Other U.S. officials said it was not entirely clear that Moscow was abandoning the west bank of the Dnieper, and might not be clear for a few days. But the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to address the matter publicly, said it would make sense to withdraw troops that were increasingly cut off, preserving them to fight another day.
Shoigu’s evidently choreographed meeting, during which he and Surovikin said they were motivated by concern for the troops, appeared aimed at softening the blow for a domestic audience. Russians have seen increasing reports of a badly managed war, a chaotic draft that prompted widespread protests, heavy casualties, and troops lacking training and equipment that were used as cannon fodder. At the same time, pro-war commenters have criticized the Kremlin for not waging a more aggressive, brutal fight.
The occupation forces had telegraphed a possible pullback for weeks, making statements about the difficult position of troops in Kherson and ordering the Kremlin-appointed regional government and the remaining civilians to flee eastward. The Ukrainian military was skeptical, reporting just days ago that 40,000 Russian troops were west of the river, digging in to fight for the city.
Moscow’s apparent decision to pull back allows an orderly withdrawal rather than the kind of sudden collapse and panicked retreat its forces endured in the east in September, leaving behind a treasure trove of weapons and other equipment that the Ukrainians could use.
“There is a lot of joy in the information space today, and it is clear why, but our emotions must be restrained — always during war,” Zelenskyy said Wednesday in his nightly address. He added, “When you are fighting, you must understand that every step is always resistance from the enemy, it is always the loss of the lives of our heroes.”
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said retreat was less a choice for the Russians than an inevitability, as Ukraine’s forces “methodically gnawed through the enemy’s defenses.”
The news that Russia was withdrawing was greeted with cautious jubilation by some local residents, who have suffered under harsh Russian rule with dwindling food, electricity and water. In Kherson, Valentyn, 50, said in a text message exchange that he awoke Wednesday to booming explosions — nothing unusual — but then “it became eerily quiet.”
“Russians are escaping; the city is almost empty,” said Valentyn, who asked that his last name be withheld for his safety. “In many places there’s no light and no water.”
He added: “The atmosphere is tense, we stay at home and wait. For our forces to enter.”
Dudchany, a village north of the city, “was divided by the front line” for a month, said Alla Torchanska, the village leader. Caught in the combat zone, residents were harassed by Russian troops who, she said, “would come every now and then, detain and interrogate people, check their phones, and take away the valuable things.”
“Today,” Torchanska said, “the Ukrainian forces finally took the entire village under their control. It’s such a blessing. Everyone feels festive.”
A grinding Ukrainian offensive has whittled down the Russian-held pocket west of the Dnieper, farm by farm and town by town, closing in on the largely evacuated city and destroying bridges the Russians used to reinforce and resupply their troops. Western intelligence officials have said that Putin rejected earlier requests by his military to abandon the city.
But people who know Putin say he still believes he can win a war he has cast as a broader conflict with the United States and its allies, convinced that the West and Ukraine will be unwilling or unable to pay the price for the length of time that Russia will.
In the Kherson region, the deputy head of the Russian occupation government in the region, Kyrylo Stremousov, who had been outspoken about Russia’s deteriorating military situation, died in a car accident, the regional chief, Vladimir Saldo, said Wednesday.
Some Ukrainians remained cautious in their assessment of Russian actions. Residents and Ukrainian officials have reported Russian soldiers changing into civilian clothes and taking over homes in Kherson city and the surrounding towns and villages, possible signs of planned ambushes. Russians have laid mines and destroyed roads to slow advancing Ukrainian forces.
“We don’t know how far we will move tomorrow,” said Kostenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker.
Ukrainian officials have also warned that if the Russians do abandon Kherson, they could then devastate it with artillery from across the river, or with flooding by breaching the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam upstream. Russians and Ukrainians have accused each other of plotting to attack the dam, the last road link Russians have across the Dnieper.
Retaking the west bank of the Dnieper could allow Ukrainian forces to interrupt the primary source of fresh water for the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, putting them within artillery range of a canal linking the river to the peninsula. Ukraine had cut the flow of water after Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014, and the Russians’ offensive earlier this year allowed them to restart it.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.