Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday 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.
Ukraine reacted with caution to the announcement. Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters some Russian forces were still in Kherson and it was too early to talk of a withdrawal.
“Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior advisor to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in a statement to Reuters.
Kherson city was the only regional capital Russia has captured since its invasion in February and its abandonment would be a major setback for what Moscow terms its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In televised comments, General Sergei Surovikin, in overall command of the war, said it was no longer possible to supply Kherson city. He said he proposed to take up defensive lines on the eastern bank of the river.
The news followed weeks of Ukrainian advances towards the city and a race by Russia to relocate tens of thousands of its residents.
“We will save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right (western) bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts,” Mr. Surovikin said.
In recent weeks there has been speculation that Moscow could either withdraw its forces from the west bank of the Dnipro or dig in for a bloody battle in the coming days or weeks.
Earlier, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up.
Photos on the internet showed the span of the Darivka bridge on the main highway east out of Kherson completely collapsed into the water of the Inhulets River, a tributary of the Dnipro River. Reuters verified the location of the images.
Ukrainians who posted photos of the destroyed bridge over the Inhulets on Wednesday speculated that it had been blown up by Russian troops in preparation for a retreat.
Vitaly Kim, the Ukrainian governor of Mykolaiv region, which borders Kherson, suggested Ukrainian forces had pushed some Russians out: “Russian troops are complaining that they have already been thrown out of there,” Mr. Kim said in a statement on his Telegram channel.
The pullout announcement had been anticipated by Russia’s influential war bloggers, who described it as a bitter blow.
“Apparently we will leave the city, no matter how painful it is to write about it now,” said the War Gonzo blog, which has more than 1.3 million subscribers on Telegram.
“In simple terms, Kherson can’t be held with bare hands,” it said. “Yes, this is a black page in the history of the Russian army. Of the Russian state. A tragic page.”