The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia orders exit from Kherson city, giving up key regional capital

A Ukrainian artillery unit fires an M777 howitzer at Russian armored vehicles near the town of Snihurivka, on the road to the city of Kherson, on Wednesday. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia on Wednesday ordered the withdrawal of its troops from the city of Kherson and its near surroundings in southern Ukraine, surrendering the key regional capital as it redeployed forces to the east bank of the Dnieper River in the latest major setback for President Vladimir Putin’s war.

It was unclear whether the order to pull back had been fully implemented, and Ukrainian officials have said they are suspicious that any Russian retreat could be part of a trap. The Ukrainians also said that it would probably take several more days before their troops could enter the city and that they might still face heavy fighting as Russians dug in to more advantageous positions.

Still, there was no masking the huge political significance of Moscow relinquishing the capital of a region that Putin just weeks ago declared annexed and absorbed into Russia. Ukrainians hailed the pullout as their latest victory in the push to reclaim occupied territory and redraw the battlefield map before winter.

U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that the Pentagon had observed “initial indicators” that Russia was following through after announcing the withdrawal. There are thousands of Russian forces along the Dnieper River, he said. “This is going to take them days and maybe even weeks to pull those forces south of that river,” Milley said, speaking at a gathering of the Economic Club of New York.

Vasylivka

Davydiv

Brid

Nuclear power plant

at Enerhodar

Dudchany

ZAPORIZHZHIA

Snihurivka

KHERSON

Melitopol

Hydroelectric dam

Nova

Kakhovka

Kherson

Russian-controlled

area

Northern

Crimean

Canal

Armiansk

Sea of

Azov

Black

Sea

Dzhankoi

CRIMEA

Annexed by Russia in 2014

Kyiv

Simferopol

Russian-controlled

area

25 MILES

Sevastopol

Detail

Sources: Nov. 8 control data via Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project, Post reporting

THE WASHINGTON POST

Russian defense minister orders

troops to withdraw from this area

Russian-held

areas

Vasylivka

25 MILES

Dudchany

Melitopol

KHERSON

Hydroelectric dam

Nova

Kakhovka

Kherson

Northern

Crimean

Canal

Armiansk

Dzhankoi

CRIMEA

Black

Sea

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Simferopol

Kyiv

Russian-controlled

area

Sevastopol

Detail

Control areas as of Nov.8

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Russian defense minister orders

troops to withdraw from this area

Russian-

held areas

Vasylivka

25 MILES

Dudchany

Melitopol

KHERSON

Hydroelectric dam

Nova Kakhovka

Kherson

N. Crimean

Canal

Armiansk

Dzhankoi

Black

Sea

CRIMEA

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Simferopol

Kyiv

Sevastopol

Russian-controlled

area

Source: Nov. 8

control data via Institute

for the Study of War

Detail

The public announcement of the withdrawal — made on television by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu — came toward the end of another day of Ukrainian advances that put Kyiv’s troops within striking distance of Kherson city. In recent days, the position of Russian troops on the west bank of the river had become increasingly untenable because of repeated Ukrainian attacks on their supply lines.

Shoigu issued the order to retreat during a televised meeting with Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s war in Ukraine since early last month, who cited the difficulty of sustaining supply routes to the troops in the Kherson city area, which depend on bridges and ferry crossings that have been targeted repeatedly by the Ukrainians, in recommending that the troops pull back.

The decision to withdraw “is not easy,” Surovikin told the defense minister. But he added that it was necessary, because “we will save the lives of our military and the combat capability of our troops.”

“Proceed with the withdrawal of troops,” Shoigu responded.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Nov. 9 that he's withdrawing his troops from the west bank of the Dnieper River near the city of Kherson. (Video: Reuters)

Ukraine’s southern military spokeswoman, Natalia Humeniuk, said that the Russian announcement of a withdrawal could not be trusted and that Ukrainian forces were expecting fierce resistance on their way to Kherson city.

“We’re absolutely not expecting it to be easy,” Humeniuk said in a phone interview Wednesday night. “We know that we’ll have to fight for every meter of our territory, but we’re prepared to do it.”

Humeniuk confirmed, however, that Russian forces appeared to be falling back. “We always knew in November the Russians would have to make difficult decisions, because further on, it will get worse,” she said. “There will be cold, frost. Their military is not prepared for this.”

Humeniuk added that Russian forces were still holding positions west of the river and that some Russian military personnel remained in Kherson city disguised as civilians. “They aren’t going to go easily, but they are trying to give that impression,” she said.

In one Ukrainian village, occupation ended — and the feud began

Even if the Russian pullback is eventually carried out, Moscow’s troops will still have a presence in the region, or oblast, of Kherson, which provides a much-coveted “land bridge” between mainland Russia and Crimea — the peninsula that Russia invaded and annexed illegally in 2014, and where they retain control of a crucial hydroelectric power plant and dam.

Russia’s forces, however, will be confined to the east bank of the Dnieper River, leaving them with no foothold in the west of the country. Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital Russia had managed to capture since the invasion was launched in February, and surrendering it also puts an end to Russian dreams of linking Crimea to the major Ukrainian port of Odessa.

Sergei Markov, a former Putin aide, described the loss of the city as “the biggest geopolitical defeat for Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Before the invasion, Russian-backed separatists had controlled the regional capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk. Putin in September declared the annexation of those regions, as well as Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, in violation of international law. The humiliating loss of Kherson city exposes how celebrations in Moscow of the new Russian territory were premature and, indeed, detached from reality on the ground.

In another blow to Moscow’s annexation goals, the deputy chief of Russia’s occupation authority in the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, was killed in a car crash Wednesday. Questions swirled given the coincidental timing of his death. Stremousov, 45, was one of the most outspoken Ukrainian supporters of Russia’s war, but he had also harshly criticized Shoigu and had at one point even suggested that the defense minister should shoot himself over battlefield setbacks.

Rumors of a Russian withdrawal from Kherson city had been circulating for weeks, but Ukraine’s advances had been slow and grinding.

But after a two-week lull in the fighting that had seemed to signal a stalemate, Ukrainian forces overnight Tuesday went on the offensive, launching an assault on the strategic town of Snihurivka, located on a major road that controls access to Kherson roughly 20 miles to the south.

Throughout the day, Ukraine pounded Russian positions in the town with U.S.-supplied M777 howitzers. By nightfall, the Russians had pulled out, and Ukraine claimed control of the town shortly before the order for a full Russian withdrawal was publicized.

Russia’s heavy casualties in Ukraine spark outcry and rare official response

Russian troops laid mines and blew up bridges as they retreated, slowing any further Ukrainian advances, a Ukrainian military official in the area said. There were also reports that Russian flags had been taken down from administrative buildings in Kherson city.

Ukrainian forces are expected to proceed slowly, because Ukrainian officials have repeatedly said that they fear the Russian pullout may be a feint, designed to lure them into an ambush.

“We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on Twitter. “Ukraine is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.”

But Western officials believe the Russians have been planning to withdraw for weeks, because their supply lines across the Dnieper River had become untenable after Ukraine received long-range precision artillery systems, mainly from the United States, but also from other allies.

“This is more about the Russians making longer-term strategic decisions about where is best to defend in order to be effective, maintain their own munitions supplies, maintain their troops levels and set themselves for the winter,” a Western official said last week, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “I think that, in their judgment, they’ve decided Kherson city isn’t worth fighting for and that natural defensive barrier of the river is extremely valuable to them.”

Salty, yellow water disgusts residents and breaks pipes in war-torn Mykolaiv

In recent weeks, Russia had already ordered the evacuation of all civilians from the west bank to the east, and tens of thousands are believed to have complied or been forced to leave. The Russians had also relocated their senior commanders and officers to the east bank, and there have been growing reports of looting and vandalization in the increasingly empty city as troops steadily pulled back.

Although there were some reports that Russia had been sending fresh reinforcements into Kherson city and its surroundings, the Western official said he believed that they had been dispatched only to protect the rear of the departing troops.

The Dnieper River forms a natural line of defense that will be easier for the Russians to hold, and there is evidence that the Russians have been digging in there, deploying additional troops and artillery to reinforce the existing defenses.

The Kherson retreat marks the third major humiliation for Russian forces after their withdrawal from the area around Kyiv in April and their collapse in Kharkiv in September, and it is exposing Russia’s leadership to renewed criticisms from hard-line commentators.

Semyon Pegov, a prominent Russian military blogger, called the retreat “a black page” in the history of the Russian military and a “tragic page” for the Russian state. The Grey Zone military account on Telegram described it as “betrayal and treason” that would be difficult for the Russian authorities to justify.

Putin ally Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the oligarch who leads the Wagner mercenary group, defended the withdrawal as a necessary step to protect the lives of Russian soldiers. “Of course this is not a victorious step,” he said in comments to the state-owned RIA Novosti news organization, “but it is important not to agonize, not to fight in a state of paranoia, but to draw conclusions and work on mistakes.”

Miller reported from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, and Ilyushina from Riga, Latvia. Robyn Dixon in Riga and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

Loading...