KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s military announced Wednesday that it was withdrawing from Ukraine’s southern city of Kherson and nearby areas, in what would be another humiliating setback for Moscow’s forces in the 8-month-old war.
“Begin to pull out troops,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a televised meeting with Russia’s top commander in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin.
Ukrainian authorities did not immediately confirm the move — and President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested in recent days that the Russians were feigning a pullout from Kherson in order to lure the Ukrainian army into an entrenched battle. Zelensky called attempts to convince civilians to move deeper into Russian-controlled territory “theater.”
Shortly after Russia’s announcement, an advisor to Zelensky said “Actions speak louder than words. We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” adding “Ukraine is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements,” Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted.
General Surovikin told Shoigu on Wednesday that it was impossible to deliver supplies to the city of Kherson and other areas on the western bank of the Dnieper River that it lies on. Shoigu agreed with his proposal to retreat and set up defenses on the eastern bank.
The withdrawal from Kherson — which sits in a region of the same name that Moscow illegally annexed — would be another significant setback. The city, with a prewar population of 280,000, is the only regional capital to be captured by Russian forces since the February 24 invasion began.
Ukrainian forces had zeroed in on the strategic industrial city, which sits on the Dnieper River that divides the region and the country itself.
During the summer, Ukrainian troops launched relentless attacks to reclaim parts of the larger province.
More than 70,000 residents were evacuated in late October, along with members of the Kremlin-installed regional government, according to the Moscow-appointed officials, although Ukrainian officials questioned the claim. The remains of Grigory Potemkin, the Russian general who founded Kherson in the 18th century, also were reportedly moved from the city’s St. Catherine’s Church.
The city and parts of the surrounding region were seized in the opening days of the conflict as Russian troops pushed their attack north from Crimea — the area illegally annexed by the Kremlin in 2014.
In recent months, Ukraine used US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers to repeatedly hit a key bridge on the Dnieper in Kherson and a large dam upstream that is also used as a crossing point. The strikes forced Russia to rely on pontoons and ferries that also were targeted by Ukraine.
The Russian announcement came as villages and towns in Ukraine saw more heavy fighting and shelling Wednesday.
At least nine civilians were killed and 24 others were wounded in 24 hours, the Ukrainian president’s office said. It accused Russia of using explosive drones, rockets, heavy artillery and aircraft to attack eight regions in the country’s southeast.
Ukrainian and Russian forces also clashed overnight over Snihurivka, a town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the southern city of Kherson.
The president’s office said widespread Russian strikes on Ukraine’s energy system continued. Two cities not far from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant were shelled overnight, it said. More than 20 residential buildings, an industrial plant, a gas pipeline and a power line were reportedly damaged in Nikopol, which lies across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
Further west, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, the Ukrainian governor reported “massive” overnight strikes with exploding Iranian-made drones that wounded four energy company workers in the city of Dnipro.
“Attacks on civilian infrastructure are war crimes in themselves. The Kremlin is at war with Ukrainian civilians, trying to leave millions of people without water and light [for them] to freeze in the winter,” Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said on Ukrainian TV.
AFP contributed to this report.