The Ukrainian authorities questioned Russia’s announcement of withdrawing its forces from Kherson, noting that it expects the fighting to continue to control this major city, which Moscow captured at the beginning of its offensive.
Kherson’s withdrawal constitutes a major setback for Moscow, which was forced to abandon the Kharkiv region in September.
These developments came as Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 21 ordered the mobilization of about 300,000 reservists to reinforce the Russian lines.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Wednesday evening that his country was looking “with great caution” at the announcement of the Russian withdrawal. “The enemy does not give us gifts,” he added in his daily message to the Ukrainians.
As for the Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine, Hana Maliar, said that “it is impossible to believe the words of the Russians. With them you must always be ready for anything.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was “to move forward with the withdrawal of forces”, during a meeting with the commander of Russian operations in Ukraine, General Sergei Sorovikin.
Kherson is the only major Ukrainian city that has fallen to Russian forces. General Sorovikin said it was no longer possible to supply troops in the city.
Sorovikin, who took command only weeks ago, announced the decision, accompanied by senior military officers, on Russian state television. He emphasized that the Russian forces would completely withdraw from the western bank of the Dnipro River.
The withdrawal represents a major blow to Russia’s military ambitions as it faces a Ukrainian counterattack.
Kherson is strategic because its territory borders Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
US President Joe Biden said he expected the move “at some point” and that it would allow both sides to “reset their positions” over the winter.
Biden’s comment on the Russian withdrawal came as he spoke from the White House after the midterm elections, which indicate that his Democratic Party is losing control of the House of Representatives to the opposition Republican Party.
Biden’s opponents earlier pledged to review Washington’s military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and Biden noted that it was “interesting” that Moscow “waited until after the election” to announce the withdrawal.
After the announcement of the Russian withdrawal, civilians inside Kherson said that the Chechen forces of the Russian army were in the city, in the cafes and moving in the streets.
At a Ukrainian position in the vicinity of the city, Ukrainian soldiers said that “the enemy might try to drag them into a trap”, and proceeded with caution.
The withdrawal from Kherson is more important because the city, which had a population of 280,000 people before the conflict, is the only capital of the region occupied by Russian forces at the beginning of their attack on Ukraine.
It is also one of the four regions of Ukraine that Putin demanded to be annexed to Moscow six weeks ago. The Russian president celebrated the annexations during a concert in Red Square under banners declaring that Russia would be there “forever.”
He ordered the Russian fighters to withdraw from the western bank of the Dnipro River, where Kherson is located, to create a line of defense on the eastern bank of this river, which represented a natural obstacle.
The Kremlin postponed this withdrawal for as long as possible, but the situation became more difficult with the Ukrainian army targeting Russian supply lines with modern weapons received from the West.
Russian President Vladimir Putin did not participate in the withdrawal announcement.
But two of his main allies, who had previously been critical of the performance of Russian forces, welcomed the move.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, said that although the decision “was not a step in sign of victory”, it is important “not to suffer, not to become paranoid, but it is necessary to draw conclusions and work to correct mistakes.”
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said General Sorovkin acted “like a real military general, not afraid of criticism”.
Although Ukrainian advances have slowed in recent weeks, Russian supply lines across the Dnipro River have become increasingly difficult after Ukrainian missiles destroyed the few bridges across the river.
Before the withdrawal, Russia moved thousands of civilians out of the city by boat, in what Ukraine described as a deportation.