KYIV, Ukraine — Russia said it began withdrawing troops from the strategic Ukrainian city of Kherson on Thursday, in a potential turning point in the grinding war, but a Ukrainian official warned that Russian land mines could render it a “city of death.”
Kyiv acknowledged Moscow’s forces had no choice but to flee Kherson but remained cautious, fearing an ambush. With Ukrainian officials tight-lipped about their assessments of the situation and reporters not present, it was difficult to know what was happening in the industrial port city, from which tens of thousands have fled in recent weeks and where remaining residents are afraid to leave their homes.
A forced pullout from Kherson — the only provincial capital Moscow had captured — would mark one of Russia’s worst setbacks, recalling their forces’ abandonment of attempts to take the national capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the war. Recapturing Kherson could provide Ukraine a launching pad for supplies and troops to try and win back other lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow illegally seized in 2014.
Already, Ukrainian forces seem to be scoring more battlefield successes in the region. The armed forces commander-in-chief, Valeriy Zaluzhny, said that since Oct. 1 Kyiv’s forces have advanced 36.5 kms (22.7 miles) and retaken 41 settlements in the Kherson region — which the Kremlin has illegally annexed. That included 12 just on Wednesday.
As Russian troops withdraw, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, warned they had laid mines throughout Kherson, saying they wanted to turn it into a “city of death” and would shell it from the positions across the Dnieper River where they are consolidating forces.
From these new positions, the Kremlin could try to escalate the conflict — which U.S. assessments showed may have already left tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers dead or wounded.
The Russian Defense Ministry reported Thursday a “maneuver of units of the Russian group” to the Dnieper River's eastern bank, also known as its left bank. The defense minister on Wednesday ordered a troop withdrawal from the city and nearby areas after his top general in Ukraine reported that the loss of supply routes had made defense “futile.”
Some Western observers, including the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, believe the Kremlin's forces have been forced to pull out but that a full withdrawal could take time.
On Thursday, Ukrainian officials appeared to soften their skepticism. Zaluzhny said that “the enemy had no other choice but to resort to fleeing,” because Kyiv’s army has destroyed supply systems and disrupted Russia's military command in the area. Still, he said the Ukrainian military could not confirm that Russian forces were indeed withdrawing.
Alexander Khara, of the Kyiv-based think tank Center for Defense Strategies, echoed those concerns, saying he remains fearful that Russian forces could destroy a dam upriver from Kherson and flood approaches to the city. The former Ukrainian diplomat also warned of booby traps and other possible dangers retreating Russians left behind.
“I would be surprised if the Russians had not set up something, some surprises for Ukraine,” Khara said.
Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at international affairs think-tank Chatham House, said the cautious response from Ukraine explains “why, until Ukrainians are in the city, they don’t want to declare that they have it (in) control.”
A resident said Kherson was deserted Thursday and that explosions could be heard from around Antonivskyi Bridge — a key Dnieper River crossing that Ukrainian forces have repeatedly bombarded.
“Life in the city seems to have stopped. Everyone has disappeared somewhere and no one knows what will happen next," said Konstantin, who insisted that his last name be withheld for security reasons.
Russian flags have disappeared from the city’s administrative buildings, and there is no sign of the Russian military personnel who earlier moved into the apartments of evacuated residents, he said.
Ukrainian officials have been cautious throughout the war in declaring any victories against a Russian force that at least initially outgunned and outmanned them.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was careful in his assessment. He spoke Thursday to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his office said they agreed “it was right to continue to exercise caution until the Ukrainian flag was raised over the city.”
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a day earlier that he believed a retreat was underway, but that Russia had amassed 20,000 to 30,000 troops in Kherson and that a full withdrawal could take several weeks.
One analyst noted that the Ukrainian army has been systematically destroying bridges and roads, making a quick transfer of Russian troops across the river impossible.
“The main question is whether the Ukrainians will give the Russians the opportunity to calmly withdraw, or fire at them during the crossing to the left bank,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. “The personnel can be taken out on boats, but the equipment needs to be taken out only on barges and pontoons, and this is very easily shelled by the Ukrainian army.”
In other developments:
— A Kremlin spokesman said Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not attend the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia next week, avoiding a possible confrontation with the United States and its allies over his war in Ukraine.
— The head of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said Thursday that three civilians had been killed in the region and 12 wounded in the last 24 hours. Writing on Telegram, the official also reported that law enforcement officers found the bodies of five people killed during the Russian occupation of the town of Yarova, which Ukraine retook on Sept. 19.
— Russian forces overnight pounded the city of Nikopol and nearby areas, Dnipropetrovsk Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. The shelling wounded a 80-year-old woman and damaged 10 residential buildings, a gas station, a gas pipeline and a power line. The neighboring Zaporizhzhia region was also shelled Thursday, according to deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office Kyrylo Tymoshenko.
Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia. Raf Casert contributed from Brussels.