On Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu 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.
Kyiv’s forces have made significant advances in recent weeks through the Kherson province, the gateway to the Crimea peninsula Russia annexed in 2014.
Russian soldiers were abandoning wounded comrades as they made a hasty retreat, sources on the front line told The Telegraph.
Kyiv announced the liberation of more than a dozen surrounding towns, reclaiming some 60 square miles, en route to Kherson.
But Ukrainian officials warned Moscow’s planned withdrawal from the West Bank of the Dnipro could be a plot to lure their forces into a bloody urban battle.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a top aide to the Ukrainian president, said Russian forces had mined “everything they can” in Kherson and blew up bridges to slow Ukraine’s advance.
“RF [Russia] wants to turn Kherson into a ‘city of death’. The Russian military mines everything they can: apartments, and sewers. Artillery on the left bank plans to turn the city into ruins,” he wrote on Twitter.
“This is what [the] ‘Russian world’ looks like: came, robbed, celebrated, killed ‘witnesses’, left ruins and left,” he added.
Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, said on Thursday morning that his forces had captured 12 settlements from the Russians, in a two-pronged advance on the southern front.
Ukrainian soldiers shared a video online from Snihurivka, 30 miles north-west of Kherson, saying members of the 131st reconnaissance battalion had liberated the village.
The footage showed them in front of their armoured vehicle, one soldier standing on the gun turret holding their country’s yellow and blue flag aloft.
As the day went on, videos emerged of Ukrainian troops appearing to enter towns and villages formerly held by Moscow, including Kysylivka, just eight miles from Kherson.
The villages of Borozens’ke, Pavlivka, Stanislav, Chkalov and Tamayrne were all liberated as part of the push.
Nikolai, a Ukrainian soldier fighting in the region, told the Telegraph: “There is a withdrawal of Russian troops to more fortified positions. But there were still populated points where we saw battles.
“They withdraw because they suffer losses, very heavy losses. What’s more, they don’t even take the bodies of their soldiers and leave the wounded behind.
“We are constantly attacking. And they have no choice but to retreat beyond the Dnipro River, where they have concentrated all their strength.”
A Ukrainian defence official said Kyiv’s forces would continue to attack Russian troops and hardware, as Moscow did not request a “green corridor” for its withdrawal.
Sergey Khlan, an aide to the ousted Ukrainian head of the Kherson region, said Ukraine destroyed Russian equipment as it was moved across the Dnipro.
Inside the city, eyewitnesses described an eerie atmosphere after Moscow announced that it would withdraw its forces.
The city’s central police station doors were flung wide open without a single Russian to be seen.
Military checkpoints were left abandoned while only a handful of Russian troops made their way into the centre to buy some final supplies from a local market.
What was believed be some of the final remaining military trucks were spotted retreating towards the left bank of the Dnipro.
“In the city, there were no checkpoints at all, there were no Russians… no soldiers,” said one resident, who wished to remain anonymous.
They said the air was filled with the whirring sound of generators and outgoing artillery fire as the Russians attempted to stall the Ukrainian advance.
There were large-scale blackouts, with no electricity or water supplies running into the city.
Internet and other communications were also down, leaving residents in the dark about the Ukrainian advance.
Local media reports claimed Russian troops had blown up a television broadcast tower and an electrical facility in the city.
Only gas remained connected, supplied from a Russian feed, which they feared could be cut off as soon as Moscow’s forces abandoned their position.
The loss of Kherson, where billboards claimed “Russia is here forever”, would be a significant defeat for Vladimir Putin.
The wider area is one of four Ukrainian territories that the Russian president annexed in September.
At the time, Putin signalled he would defend the regions, including Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk, with nuclear weapons.
While the Kremlin has backtracked on those remarks, Kherson’s residents fear they could be caught up in a brutal artillery battle between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Many have already attempted to escape to Crimea, the peninsula illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014, to seek shelter.
“People are trying to leave for Crimea because they are scared of what could happen,” one resident said.
“Kherson will be hard for the Russians to lose, we’re now expecting something bad to happen.”
They predicted reprisal attacks on either the hydroelectric dam in Nova Kakhovka or a strike on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
The Russian retreat from Kherson is expected to take several days to complete, with between 20,000 and 30,000 troops needed to be withdrawn to the opposite bank of the Dnipro.
General Mark Milley, America’s top military commander, said: “It won’t take them a day or two. It will take them days and perhaps even weeks to pull those forces south of that river.”
British military officials said the Russians would use artillery to provide cover for withdrawing forces.
“With limited crossing points, Russian forces will be vulnerable in crossing the Dnipro River. It is likely that the withdrawal will take place over several days with defensive positions and artillery fires covering withdrawing forces,” the Ministry of Defence said in its daily intelligence update.
“The loss of Kherson’s west bank will likely prevent Russia from achieving its strategic aspiration of a land bridge reaching Odesa,” it added.
Kremlin propagandists ran out of fake stories about ‘special operation’
The Kherson withdrawal left Russian propagandists struggling to explain the fall of the city the Kremlin formally annexed in September.
Irina Alksnis in a column for state-owned news agency RIA Novosti titled “Russia retreated from Kherson – but not really” argued that Russian troops retreated “because they can afford a retreat” and invoked Russian imperial troops abandoning Moscow during Napoleon’s invasion of 1812: “Russia has always gone back to claim what is ours.”
The comment sections of some of Russia’s most popular pro-war Telegram channels were flooded with indignant comments, accusing the Russian leadership of betraying the country and its supporters in Ukraine by pulling out of Kherson.
Vladimir Solovyev, one of Russia’s most rabid propagandists, in a sombre voice opened his nightly show by announcing the news and calling on Russians to rally around the Kremlin.
“You have to be a very courageous person to make this decision,” Mr Solovyev said.
“We’re at war against Nato, and clearly we didn’t expect Nato to be fighting us at this scale. We shouldn’t give in to emotions and instead respect the decision of the military knowing full well how painful and scary that is.”
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