Zelenskiy cautious as Moscow announces Kherson retreat: ‘The enemy doesn’t give us gifts’

The Russian Defense Ministry says withdrawal from key port city is ‘in strict accordance with the approved plan’ while NATO heralds ‘another victory for Ukraine’

War in Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers load a self-propelled gun on the Kherson front on Wednesday.STANISLAV KOZLIUK (EFE)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has sounded a note of caution over the Russian announcement that the Kremlin is pulling its troops back from the occupied city of Kherson on the western bank of the Dnipro River. “The enemy doesn’t give us gifts or gestures of goodwill,” Zelenskiy said during a brief televised address after the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergey Surovikin, confirmed a general retreat from Kherson to preserve the lives of troops and maintain their combat readiness. However, the advances being made by Kyiv’s forces in the region have given rise to optimism that Ukraine is winning one of the decisive battles of the war. Zelenskiy avoided triumphalism in his address, fully aware that any Russian tactical decision may not be what it seems, but he did note: “No one withdraws from anywhere unless they encounter [their opponent’s] strength.

Russian forces took Kherson, a major port city and the only regional capital that Kremlin forces had occupied, during the early stages of the invasion by launching a swift assault on a poorly defended area. At the time, most of Ukraine’s best troops and armaments were concentrated in Donbas. Now, Russia’s greatest victory in its war against Ukraine is poised to turn into Vladimir Putin’s biggest defeat. Ukrainian military sources estimate there are between 30,000 to 50,000 Russian troops in Kherson and the main priority of Moscow’s Defense Ministry now is to organize an orderly withdrawal. Previous Russian retreats have left a wealth of weapons, ammunition and supplies to be turned against them by Kyiv’s advancing armies.

“The Russian troop units are maneuvering to prepared position on the left bank of the Dnipro River in strict accordance with the approved plan,” the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted by the Moscow Times as stating.

Unlike the rapid and successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region - launched two months ago under great secrecy and a misinformation campaign that pulled Russian troops from the region to shore up the Kherson front to the south – the advance on Kherson has been slow and steady, pushing the Kremlin’s forces back to the Dnipro town by town and village by village.

Now, with the announced retreat, Kyiv has completely regained the western bank of the river, which divides the country in two and it a strategic objective for both sides: coveted by Moscow at the beginning of the invasion and equally important to Kyiv’s plans, Kherson is the gateway to Crimea and to the neighboring region of Zaporizhzhia, one of four Ukrainian provinces illegally annexed by Putin in September along with Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson and the location of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, which has been under the Kremlin’s control since March.

Russia’s retreat also signifies a military withdrawal from territory the Kremlin considers its own. “We move very carefully, without emotions and unnecessary risks, In the interests of the liberation of our entire land and so that there are as few losses as possible,” Zelenskiy was quoted by the Kiev Independent as saying.

Ukrainian soldiers search for explosives in a recaptured area in the north of Kherson, Ukraine, 25 October 2022.
Ukrainian soldiers search for explosives in a recaptured area in the north of Kherson, Ukraine, 25 October 2022.HANNIBAL HANSCHKE (EFE)

Kherson a key strategic city for Moscow and Kyiv

The Ukrainian counter-offensive on the Kherson front has been descending toward the city for several weeks. Kyiv’s military strategists had been preparing for a fierce battle to retake the country’s second largest city but the Russian withdrawal has instead provided the Zelenskiy government with another propaganda coup, after the successful defense of the capital in the early stages of the invasion. If Moscow does withdraw entirely from Kherson, and Kyiv military sources have confirmed there are “signs” that is the case, it will be largest retreat of the Kremlin’s forces since Putin abandoned his bid to take Kyiv on April 2.

If Ukraine recaptures Kherson, the counteroffensive will galvanize Ukraine’s forces and Western support while also strengthening Kyiv’s position ahead of an expected winter stagnation on the front lines and potential talks over a negotiated end to hostilities. Putin will bide his time and take stock after another military setback on the Kherson front while Moscow will likely intensify its attacks on essential infrastructure to deprive Ukrainians of heat, water and electricity.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that developments over the next few days would need to be monitored to see if Moscow’s withdrawal from Kherson is genuine. “What is clear is that Russia is coming under heavy pressure and if they leave Kherson, it would be another victory for Ukraine,” he added.

The Russian Defense Ministry announcement and the withdrawal of troops from positions on the western bank of the Dnipro on Wednesday already represents a humiliating turnaround for Putin, who announced the illegal annexation of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk on September 30. Just 40 days later, his troops and equipment are evacuating territory that is supposedly Russian in the face of another successful Ukrainian military operation.

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