Kyiv has reacted sceptically to Russia announcing its retreat from the southern city of Kherson, urging continued resistance until Ukraine liberates all of its occupied cities.
Moscow’s decision to withdraw troops from the regional capital it had seized earlier in the war came as the United States estimated more than 100,000 Russian military personnel have been killed or wounded in Ukraine.
Kyiv’s forces have likely suffered similar casualties, according to top US General Mark Milley, who shared the most precise figures released to date by Washington.
Both Milley and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky refrained from overblowing the significance of Moscow’s retreat from Kherson, even as US President Joe Biden suggested it was evidence that eight months into the war, Russia has “real problems” on the battlefield.
Zelensky has suggested that rather than experiencing a major setback, Russia could be strategically feigning.
“The enemy does not bring us gifts, does not make ‘gestures of goodwill,'” Zelensky said Wednesday in his daily address to the nation, adding that any gains by Ukraine come at the expense of “lives lost by our heroes”.
Kherson, a gateway to the annexed Crimean Peninsula, was the first urban hub captured by Russia during its “special military operation” and the only regional capital controlled by Moscow’s forces since the February 24 invasion.
Ukraine’s troops have for weeks been capturing villages en route to the city near the Black Sea, and Kremlin-installed leaders in Kherson have been pulling out civilians.
“Begin to pull out troops,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said at a televised meeting with Russia’s commander in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin.
The commander had proposed the “difficult decision” of pulling back from the city and setting up defences on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
In Kyiv, legislator and peace negotiator David Arakhamia insisted Ukraine’s military would not be lured into a false sense of security.
“We do not trust the enemy and will act according to our plans to liberate the territories,” he said.
“Sooner or later they will either leave Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Sevastopol, or they will be destroyed.”
Some Ukrainian civilians, too, were sceptical.
Andriy Orikhovskyi, a 46-year-old financier, told AFP in Kyiv: “The Russian leadership is playing something, you shouldn’t trust them… I think they are up to something.”
– 115,000 civilians removed –
In Moscow, Kremlin supporters rushed to justify the decision.
The head of Russian state media group RT, Margarita Simonyan, said the retreat was necessary in order not to leave Russian troops exposed on the west bank of the Dnipro River and “open the way to Crimea”.
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov said the decision was “difficult but fair”.
Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is the founder of the Wagner mercenary group and has been critical of Russia’s military strategy in the campaign, was more ambiguous.
“It is important not to agonise, not to beat around in paranoia, but to draw conclusions and work on mistakes,” his press service wrote on social media.
Russia losing the Kherson region would return to Ukraine important access to the Sea of Azov and leave President Vladimir Putin with little to show from a campaign that has turned him into a pariah in Western eyes.
The retreat will put pressure on Russian control of the rest of the Kherson region, which forms a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.
Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions that Russia declared it had annexed in September, shortly after being forced to withdraw from swathes of territory in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
The announcement of the retreat came just hours after officials said the Moscow-installed deputy head of the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, a key supporter of annexation, had died in a car crash.
As Ukrainian troops have gradually advanced in the south, Surovikin told Shoigu on Wednesday that some 115,000 people had been removed from the western bank of the Dnipro, which includes Kherson city.
Ukraine has defined these population movements towards Russia or Russian-occupied territory as “deportations”.
– ‘Strong bipartisan support’ –
In Washington, where election officials were still counting votes after Tuesday’s crucial midterms, Biden said the retreat from Kherson demonstrated Moscow’s military weaknesses.
“It’s evidence of the fact that they have some real problems, Russia, the Russian military,” Biden told reporters in Washington.
Biden’s Democratic Party looked set to narrowly lose control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans, some of whom have vowed to review US military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
But Biden vowed that Washington’s support of Kyiv will remain unchanged.
“In the area of foreign policy I hope we’ll continue this bipartisan approach of confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” he said.
With the Russian offensive now in its ninth month, Western powers have stepped up military and financial support for Kyiv.
In the latest announcement, the European Commission on Wednesday proposed an 18-billion-euro ($18-billion) aid package for Ukraine in 2023 in the form of loans.