Russia says retreat from key city of Kherson has begun, but Ukraine remains cautious

Russian soldiers stand in or near a military vehicle on a street.
Russian soldiers stand guard in Kherson, in southern Ukraine, in May.
(Associated Press)

Russia said its troops began pulling out of a strategic Ukrainian city Thursday, amid growing signs it was following through on a retreat that would mark a turning point in the grinding war.

Ukrainian officials said Moscow’s forces had no choice but to flee, but remained cautious, fearing an ambush. It was difficult to know what exactly was happening in the strategic port city, from which tens of thousands of people have fled in recent weeks and where remaining residents are frightened to leave their homes.

A forced pullout from Kherson — the only provincial capital Moscow has captured — would mark one of Russia’s worst setbacks yet, recalling their retreat from Kyiv in the early days of the war. Recapturing Kherson could allow Ukraine to win back lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow illegally seized in 2014.

A Russian retreat is also almost certain to raise domestic pressure on the Kremlin to escalate the conflict — which U.S. assessments showed may have already left tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers dead or wounded.


The Russian Defense Ministry reported Thursday a “maneuver of units of the Russian group” to the opposite side of the Dnieper River from where Kherson lies — a day after the minister ordered a troop withdrawal from the city and nearby areas during a choreographed briefing by his top general that was carried on state TV.

Some Western observers, including the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, said they believed the Kremlin’s forces had been forced to pull out — though a full withdrawal could take some time.

The Russian military says it’s pulling back from the western bank of the Dnieper River in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, which Moscow illegally annexed.

Nov. 9, 2022

And Ukrainian officials Thursday appeared to soften their skepticism somewhat. The armed forces’ commander in chief, Valeriy Zaluzhny, said that “the enemy had no other choice but to resort to fleeing,” since Kyiv’s army has destroyed supply systems and disrupted Russia’s military command in the area.

Zaluzhny also noted Ukrainian advances over the last month, saying that Ukraine has retaken 41 settlements in the Kherson region — which the Kremlin illegally annexed in September. That included 12 on Wednesday.

Still, he said that the Ukrainian military could not confirm whether Russian forces were indeed withdrawing.


Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak warned that Russian forces had laid mines throughout Kherson, saying they wanted to turn it into a “city of death.”

Ukraine’s president has hinted at the possibility of peace talks with Russia, but his preconditions would appear to be nonstarters for the Kremlin.

Nov. 8, 2022

Alexander Khara, of the Kyiv-based think tank Center for Defense Strategies, echoed those concerns, saying that he remains fearful of the possibility that Russian forces could destroy a dam upriver from Kherson and flood approaches to the city. The former Ukrainian diplomat also warned of booby traps and possible other dangers left behind by the retreating Russians.

“I would be surprised if the Russians had not set up something, some surprises for Ukraine,” Khara said.

Residents said that Kherson was completely deserted Thursday and that explosions could occasionally be heard from the area of the Antonivskyi Bridge — a key crossing point on the Dnieper River that has been repeatedly targeted by Ukrainian bombardment.

“Life in the city seems to have stopped, everyone has disappeared somewhere and no one knows what will happen next,” said Konstantin, who asked that his last name be withheld for security reasons.

Stealth operations and assistance from Ukrainian guerrilla forces pose a growing challenge to Russia’s grip on occupied areas in southeastern Ukraine.

Aug. 9, 2022

Russian flags have disappeared from the city’s administrative buildings, and there is no sign of the Russian military personnel who earlier moved into the apartments of evacuated residents, he said.

Ukrainian officials have been cautious throughout the war in declaring any victories against a Russian force that at least initially outgunned and outmanned them.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak were careful in their assessments. Sunak spoke Thursday to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and his office said both men agreed that “it was right to continue to exercise caution until the Ukrainian flag was raised over the city.”

Still, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a day earlier that he believed a retreat was underway. He said that Russia had amassed 20,000 to 30,000 troops in Kherson and that a full retreat could take several weeks.

One analyst noted that the Ukrainian army has been systematically destroying bridges and roads for several months, making a quick transfer of Russian troops from one side of the river to the other an impossibility.

“The main question is whether the Ukrainians will give the Russians the opportunity to calmly withdraw, or fire at them during the crossing to the left bank,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. “With the rapid withdrawal of troops, the Russians are at great risk. The bridges are in very poor condition — the personnel can be taken out on boats, but the equipment needs to be taken out only on barges and pontoons, and this is very easily shelled by the Ukrainian army.”

Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said Thursday that three civilians had been killed in the region and 12 others wounded in the last 24 hours. Writing on Telegram, the official also reported that law enforcement officers had found the bodies of five people killed during the Russian occupation of the town of Yarova, which was retaken by Ukraine on Sept. 19.

Russian forces overnight pounded the city of Nikopol and nearby areas, using multiple-rocket launchers and heavy artillery, Dnipropetrovsk Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. The shelling wounded an 80-year-old woman and damaged 10 residential buildings, a gas station, a gas pipeline and a power line.

The neighboring Zaporizhzhia region was also shelled Thursday morning, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office.