(Moscow) Russia on Wednesday suffered another major setback in its assault on Ukraine by announcing the withdrawal of its forces from Kherson, a regional capital in southern Ukraine targeted by a counter-offensive by the Kyiv army.
This withdrawal, decided after the displacement of some 115,000 inhabitants of the Kherson region by the Russian occupation forces, sounds like a crushing defeat for Moscow, already forced to abandon the Kharkiv region (northeast) in September.
It also intervenes when Vladimir Putin had precisely ordered on September 21 the mobilization of some 300,000 reservists to consolidate the Russian lines. Tens of thousands of them are already in combat zones.
“Proceed with the withdrawal of troops,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during a meeting with the commander of Russian operations in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, who had just advocated this decision “not at all easy” to take.
“This is proof that they have real problems, Russia, the Russian army,” US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday during a press conference.
The symbol is all the stronger since Kherson, 280,000 inhabitants before the conflict, is the only regional capital conquered by Russian forces at the start of their offensive in Ukraine.
It is also one of the four areas of Ukraine which Mr. Putin claimed for annexation by Moscow six weeks ago. The Russian president celebrated these annexations during a concert in Red Square, under banners proclaiming that Russia would be present there “forever”.
But the announcement of the Russian withdrawal was greeted with caution by Kyiv, which suspects Moscow of wanting to draw its forces into a difficult urban battle in Kherson.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Wednesday evening that his country was reacting with “extreme caution” to the announcement of the Russian withdrawal.
“The enemy does not give us a gift, does not show a ‘goodwill gesture’, we must win everything,” Zelensky said in his daily message to Ukrainians. “We must therefore exercise extreme caution, without emotion, without taking unnecessary risks, in order to liberate all of our land with as minimal losses as possible.”
“We see no sign that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight. A part of [troupes] Russians are maintained in the city”, had previously declared an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, Mykhaïlo Podoliak.
“They are just trying to get out of a difficult situation,” said Natalia Gumeniuk, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian army’s southern command.
“The fact that they so deliberately announced that they were crossing over to the left bank [du fleuve Dniepr] surprised no one. But we know we will still have to fight,” she added, saying the battle for Kherson was not over.
“I think they’re up to something. […], maybe some kind of trap. I don’t think they will surrender,” said Kyiv resident Serguii Filonchouk.
Concretely, Mr. Shoigu ordered the Russian fighters to withdraw from the western bank of the Dnieper, where Kherson is located, to establish a line of defense on the eastern bank of this river which represents a natural obstacle.
The Kremlin postponed this humiliating withdrawal as long as possible, but the situation had become increasingly difficult with a Ukrainian army targeting Russian supply lines using modern Western-delivered weaponry.
The Kherson region is all the more strategic as its territory borders Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014.
General Surovikin on Wednesday justified the withdrawal by his desire to protect the lives of Russian soldiers.
Mr Putin did not comment on this withdrawal, but people close to the Kremlin, such as the founder of the paramilitary group Wagner, Evgeny Prigojine, and the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, defended the measure.
“Between making an absurd sacrifice and saving the lives of the soldiers, General Surovikin made a difficult but fair choice,” said Mr. Kadyrov, usually considered along with Yevgeny Prigozhin as a supporter of the hardest line.
Since the annexation announced at the end of September, Moscow considers Kherson as part of the national territory.
However, Mr. Putin warned that Russia would defend “by all means” what it considers to be its territory, other senior Russian officials explicitly brandishing a possible recourse to nuclear weapons.
General Sourovikine also announced on Wednesday that the occupation authorities had carried out in recent weeks the “evacuation” of 115,000 people from the right bank to the left bank of the Dnieper.
Ukraine denounced these displacements of population, qualifying them as “deportation”.
Another sign of the chaotic situation in Kherson, one of the highest officials of the Russian occupation, Kirill Stremoussov, died on Wednesday, according to local authorities, in a “road accident” in unspecified circumstances.
As the Russian offensive soon enters its ninth month, the West has continued to reaffirm its military, logistical and financial support for Kyiv.
The European Commission on Wednesday proposed to the twenty-seven member countries to grant Ukraine aid of 18 billion euros for 2023, in the form of loans.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed EU “solidarity” as Kyiv worries about weakening US support after US midterm elections still uncertain, even if the White House assured that its support would be “infallible”.