© Reuters. Ukrainian servicemen fire a Polish self-propelled howitzer Krab toward Russian positions, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, on a frontline in Donetsk region, Ukraine November 8, 2022. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak
By Tom Balmforth and Jonathan Landay
KYIV/NOVOOLEXANDRIVKA, Ukraine (Reuters) -Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday ordered his troops to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River in the face of Ukrainian attacks near the southern city of Kherson, a significant retreat and potential turning point in the war.
Ukraine reacted with caution to the announcement, saying some Russian forces were still in Kherson.
“Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in a statement to Reuters.
Kherson city was the only regional capital Russia had captured since its invasion in February and the abandonment of such a strategic prize would be a major setback for what Moscow terms its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Kherson is the main city of the region of the same name – one of four that President Vladimir Putin declared in September he was incorporating into Russia “for ever”, and which Moscow said had now been placed under its nuclear umbrella.
In televised comments, General Sergei Surovikin, in overall command of the war, reported to Shoigu that it was no longer possible to supply Kherson city. He said he proposed to take up defensive lines on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
Shoigu told Surovikin: “I agree with your conclusions and proposals. For us, the life and health of Russian servicemen is always a priority. We must also take into account the threats to the civilian population.
“Proceed with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnipro River.”
The news followed weeks of Ukrainian advances towards the city and a race by Russia to relocate tens of thousands of its residents.
“We will save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right (western) bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts,” Surovikin said.
‘COURAGEOUS UKRAINIAN SOLDERS’
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on a visit to London, welcomed the news from Kherson, and noted the substantial military help the alliance was providing to Kyiv.
“The victories, the gains the Ukrainian armed forces are making belongs to the brave, courageous Ukrainian soldiers but of course the support they receive from… NATO allies and partners is also essential,” said Stoltenberg.
If Ukrainian forces take the entire west bank of the Dnipro, their U.S.-supplied long range artillery and HIMARS multiple rocket launchers would be able to strike Russian logistics bases and positions on the east bank defending the approaches to the annexed Crimea peninsula, according to military experts.
But the Ukrainians may face numerous booby traps and could be targeted by intense Russian artillery barrages.
Stoltenberg also struck a note of caution.
“… we should not underestimate Russia, they still have capabilities,” he told Sky News. “We have seen the drones, we have seen the missile attacks, it shows that Russia can still inflict a lot of damage.”
Compounding the sense of Russian disarray in Kherson, Moscow’s number two official there, Kirill Stremousov, was killed on Wednesday in what Moscow said was a car crash.
Stremousov was one of the most prominent faces of Russia’s occupation. Ukraine viewed him as a collaborator and a traitor.
In a video statement only hours before his death, Stremousov denounced what he called Ukrainian “Nazis” and said the Russian military was in “full control” of the situation in the south.
Earlier on Wednesday, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up.
Photos on the internet showed the span of the Darivka bridge on the main highway east out of Kherson completely collapsed into the water of the Inhulets River, a tributary of the Dnipro. Reuters verified the location of the images.
Ukrainians who posted photos of the destroyed bridge speculated that it had been blown up by Russian troops in preparation for a retreat.
Vitaly Kim, the Ukrainian governor of the Mykolaiv region, which borders Kherson, suggested Ukrainian forces had pushed some Russians out.
“Russian troops are complaining that they have already been thrown out of there,” Kim said on his Telegram channel.
‘A TRAGIC PAGE’
The pullout announcement had been anticipated by Russia’s influential war bloggers, who described it as a bitter blow.
“Apparently we will leave the city, no matter how painful it is to write about it now,” said the War Gonzo blog, which has more than 1.3 million subscribers on Telegram.
“In simple terms, Kherson can’t be held with bare hands,” it said. “Yes, this is a black page in the history of the Russian army. Of the Russian state. A tragic page.”
Further east, in Novoolexandrivka, a village on a hilly bank of the Dnipro in territory recaptured by Ukrainian troops last month, the thunder of near constant rocket and artillery fire echoed on Wednesday from the front 10 km (6 miles) away.
“We’re kicking them off this bank and we will kick them off the other bank,” said Oleh, a Ukrainian soldier.
Since pulling out, the Russians have pounded the area every day, villagers and soldiers said. Around a third of residents, some 230 people, have stayed behind.
“They won’t let me die in peace. I want to be able to die in peace at the end of my life,” groaned Mariia Lytvynova, 92, as she leant on a walking stick under a trellised archway hung with vines ripe with red grapes leading to her small home.
“I have already survived one war,” she said, referring to World War II, when the region was occupied by Nazi Germany.
“What will happen with the young people? I am done with my life. But they have to carry on.”