KYIV, Ukraine — Pro-Kremlin officials said they were pulling out of the key southern Ukraine city of Kherson on Wednesday, as Kyiv’s forces advanced on territory in Russian hands since the war’s earliest days.
Kherson was the first major city to fall to Moscow’s troops after the February invasion and retaking it would be a crucial prize in Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive.
Kyiv’s recapturing of swaths of its territory in the east and parts of the south has, however, been followed by missile and drone strikes that have demolished large parts of Ukraine’s power grid ahead of winter.
“The entire administration is already moving today,” to the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, the Kherson region’s Moscow-installed head, Vladimir Saldo, told Russian state television.
But the Ukrainian presidency’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak called the moves a “propaganda show” and accused Russia of “trying to scare the people of Kherson.”
Ukrainian forces “do not fire at Ukrainian cities,” Yermak wrote on Telegram.
The city is located on the western bank of the Dnieper, the same side where Ukrainian troops have been moving forward in a counteroffensive that began in August.
Evacuation from Kherson region in full swing — Kremlin-installed officials say they are preparing for battle, aim to move 50-60K people "deeper into Russia" in a week, and entry into the region has been banned to civilians. Putin also plans to meet Sec Council today ???? pic.twitter.com/2SborTue66
— Mary Ilyushina (@maryilyushina) October 19, 2022
Saldo said the pullout, along with the organized movement of civilians from the city, was a precaution and vowed that Russian forces would continue to fight against Ukraine.
Pro-Russian officials have said civilians would only be allowed to leave toward Russia or Russian-held parts of Ukraine.
However, Ukrainian forces have targeted bridges across the river to disrupt supply lines so Russian-installed officials said the evacuations were being done with ferries.
Russia’s Rossiya 24 state television channel showed images of people waiting to board ferries to cross the river.
Local officials said they were planning to move up to 60,000 civilians from the city of Kherson over a period of around six days.
Later Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced martial law in the Kherson, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions that Moscow claims to have annexed.
“I signed a decree to introduce martial law in these four subjects of the Russian Federation,” Putin said during a televised National Security Council meeting. The Kremlin then published a decree saying martial law will be introduced from early Thursday.
Russia’s military commander for Ukraine operations, General Sergey Surovikin has said the Russian army will ensure “the safe evacuation of the population” from Kherson.
Speaking to Russian state TV on Tuesday, he accused Ukraine of strikes on civilian infrastructure in the region that “create a direct threat to the lives of residents.”
Ukraine has recaptured occupied territory in the east of the country in recent weeks.
Its advance in the south has been far slower but has been gaining momentum in recent days.
There have also been some Russian advances. Russian forces on Tuesday claimed to have retaken territory from Ukrainian troops in the eastern Kharkiv region.
It was Moscow’s first announced capture of a village there since being nearly entirely pushed out of the region last month.
Russia has also been building up its defenses in the territory it still holds.
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group said it was working on building a fortified line of defense in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region.
“It is a multi-level and layered defense,” the group’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on the social media of his company Concord.
Russian forces, meanwhile, continue to occupy the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — Europe’s largest.
Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency Energoatom, told AFP on Wednesday that Russian forces were holding “about 50” plant employees in captivity.
Warnings of power outages
Ukraine meanwhile scrambled to rebuild damaged energy facilities across the country following a series of Russian strikes.
The government has warned of an emerging “critical” risk to its power grid after repeated Russian bombardments had destroyed one third of the country’s power facilities as winter approaches.
“It’s necessary for the whole country to prepare for electricity, water and heating outages,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, told Ukrainian television on Tuesday.
Drones also bombarded Kyiv on Monday, leaving five dead, in what the presidency described as an attack of Russian desperation after a string of battlefield losses.
Kyiv and its Western allies have accused Moscow of using Iranian-made drones in the strikes, a move President Volodymyr Zelensky portrayed as a sign of Russia’s failure.
Ukraine said Wednesday it had shot down 223 Iranian-made drones since mid-September.
But the Kremlin has said it has no knowledge of its army using Iranian drones in Ukraine and Tehran has said the claims that it is providing Russia with weapons are “baseless.”
Nabila Massrali, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, said the EU has “sufficient evidence” that Tehran was supplying Russia with drones and would prepare fresh sanctions on Iran.