KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia said its troops began pulling out of a strategic Ukrainian city on Thursday amid growing signs it was following through on a retreat that would mark a turning point in the grinding war.
Ukrainian officials acknowledged Moscow’s forces had no choice but to flee Kherson but remained cautious, fearing an ambush. 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 frightened to leave their homes.
A forced pullout from Kherson — the only provincial capital Moscow has captured — would mark one of Russia’s worst setbacks yet, recalling their retreat from the capital in the early days of the war.
Recapturing Kherson could allow Ukraine to win back lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow illegally seized in 2014. A Russian retreat is also almost certain to raise domestic pressure on the Kremlin to escalate the conflict.
The Russian Defense Ministry reported Thursday a “maneuver of units of the Russian group” to the opposite side of the Dnieper River from where Kherson lies — a day after the minister ordered a troop withdrawal during a choreographed briefing by his top general carried on state TV.
Some Western observers, including the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, said they believed the Kremlin’s forces have been forced to pull out — though a full withdrawal could take some time.
And on Thursday, Ukrainian officials appeared to soften their skepticism somewhat. The armed forces commander-in-chief, Valeriy Zaluzhny, said that “the enemy had no other choice but to resort to fleeing,” since Kyiv’s army has destroyed supply systems and disrupted Russia’s military command in the area. Zaluzhny also noted recent Ukrainian advances, saying that Kyiv’s forces have retaken 41 settlements in the Kherson region since Oct. 1, including 12 just on Wednesday.
Still, he said that Ukrainian military could not confirm or deny that Russian forces were indeed withdrawing.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, meanwhile, offered another reason to be wary of any pullback: He alleged Russian forces had laid mines throughout Kherson, saying they wanted to turn it into a “city of death.”
Residents said that the city was completely deserted Thursday and that explosions could occasionally be heard from the area of the Antonivskyi Bridge — a key crossing point on the Dnieper River that has been repeatedly targeted by Ukrainian bombardment.
“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 to be withheld for security reasons. “Only people with demining equipment are walking around in Kherson, but there are not many of them.”
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.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was also guarded Thursday, insisting the West needed to wait and see “how the situation on the ground develops in the coming days.”
“But what is clear is that Russia is under heavy pressure. And if they leave Kherson, it would be another victory for Ukraine,” he said at a press briefing in Rome.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a day earlier that he believed a retreat was underway.
“The initial indicators are they are in fact doing it. They made the public announcement they’re doing it. I believe they’re doing it in order to preserve their force to reestablish defensive lines south of the (Dnieper) River, but that remains to be seen,” he said at The Economic Club of New York.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think that tracks the conflict, also said the withdrawal appeared genuine.
But Milley said Russia had amassed 20,000 to 30,000 troops in Kherson and a full retreat could take several weeks.
One analyst noted that the Ukrainian army has been systematically destroying bridges and roads for several months, making a quick transfer of Russian troops from one side of the river to the other an impossibility.
“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 a stark assessment of the toll the war has taken already, Milley estimated as many as 40,000 Ukrainian civilians and “well over” 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in the war. “Same thing probably on the Ukrainian side,” he added.
In other developments:
— An Indonesian government official 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 another 12 wounded in the last 24 hours. Writing on Telegram, the official also reported that law enforcement officers had found the bodies of five people killed during the Russian occupation of the town of Yarova, which was retaken by Ukraine on September 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 on Thursday morning, according to deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office Kyrylo Tymoshenko.
Karmanau reported from Tallinn, Estonia. Raf Casert contributed from Brussels.
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