Russia announced Wednesday that it was withdrawing forces from Kherson, a key city in southern Ukraine, in what could turn out to be the most humiliating setback in President Vladimir Putin’s war.
Ukrainian officials remained cautious about the Russian forces’ intentions with some suggesting on social media that it was a trick but in televised comments, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he was ordering the withdrawal of troops across the Dnieper River.
Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, proposed taking up defensive lines on the eastern bank of the river.
The announcement of the withdrawal followed weeks of Ukrainian advances toward the city and a race by Russia to relocate more than 100,000 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,” Surovikin said.
Ukrainian authorities have not confirmed the move and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has suggested that the Russians were laying a trap pullout from Kherson in order to lure Ukrainian forces into battle.
Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak also expressed skepticism over Russia's announcement.
If Ukraine wins in Kherson it could put the Zelenskyy government in a better position to negotiate, U.S. and Western officials have told NBC News. But, they added, it could also discourage Russia from coming to the table if Putin believes he’s not negotiating from a position of strength.
The announced Russian withdrawal from Kherson, which is in a region of the same name, came after Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were deliberately blowing up bridges around the city — the only regional capital to be captured by Russian forces since the invasion began on Feb. 24.
“The occupiers are currently undermining absolutely all the bridges on the right bank of the Kherson region,” Serhii Khlan, the deputy head of Kherson’s regional council, said in a Telegram post.
Ukrainian and Russian forces also clashed overnight in the town Snihurivka, around 30 miles north of Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy civilian administrator of the Kherson region, said in a post on his Telegram channel.
Stremousov died Wednesday in a road accident, the head of the Moscow-appointed regional administration, Vladimir Saldo, said in a post on Telegram.
Stremousov had posted regular video updates on social media — including while in vehicles moving at high speed — about the situation on the front line.
Russia has fought for months to hang on to the pocket of land it holds on the west bank of the river that bisects Ukraine, as well as Kherson, the only major Ukrainian city that Russian forces have captured intact since the invasion began Feb. 24.
Moscow declared at the end of September that it had annexed Kherson, along with the Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzia regions after staging referendums that were denounced by Kyiv and the West as illegal and rigged.
And it has poured in tens of thousands of troops as reinforcements in the region, which is also home to the huge Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper. The dam holds back an enormous reservoir and controls the water supply to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
However, late last month, Russian-installed authorities ordered residents to leave the city, saying in a statement on their Telegram channel that they should board boats across the Dnieper river. They added that all departments and ministries of the Kremlin-installed administration should also evacuate to escape advancing Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian military has targeted the main river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply forces on the river’s west bank. Since bursting through the Russian front line at the start of October, the Ukrainians have advanced down the river.
Once that supply chain was damaged it was “probably inevitable,” that Russia would have to withdraw its forces, Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told NBC News.
“It was going to be a real task to keep a large army supplied on the west side of the Dieper river without a heavy lift capability,” he said, adding that they “obviously tried but they must have come to the conclusion that it couldn’t happen.”
While the Ukrainians would be happy with their victory, he said that it would now be "very hard" for them to attack the Russians over the Dnieper.
“It’s a big river and there are no bridges,” he said. “A further assault in that region is now unlikely and a lot more of the war will move to the east and the center.”
Kherson is the last major front line that could shift before winter, U.S. officials said, after which neither side is likely to make large advances.
Fighting is already slowing down and the Russians are preparing lines of defense in depth around Kherson, creating “the potential for this to be slower,” according to a Western official.