Cut off from supply lines and under increasingly heavy bombardment, Russian soldiers in Ukraine have been given the order to withdraw from the Western bank of the Dnipro River, effectively handing back control of swathes of occupied territory to Kyiv’s troops.

In a televised statement on Wednesday evening, General Sergey Surovikin, the overall commander of the Kremlin’s invasion forces, said that the retreat is needed “to preserve the lives of our troops and the combat readiness of our units” given they are at risk of being surrounded. The decision was then agreed by Moscow’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu.

An estimated 40,000 Russian soldiers are believed to be in the area at present, including both regular units and conscripts called up to fight following a mobilisation order in September.

The order will see them abandon Kherson, a strategic south-coast Black Sea port city that was home to more than a quarter of a million people prior to the start of Russia’s full-scale war. Kherson was one of the earliest major cities to fall to Moscow’s troops as they advanced in March, and reports from the occupied city have detailed widespread arrests and torture of Ukrainian citizens who stayed behind.

Hours prior to the announcement, it was confirmed that the Russian-installed deputy governor of Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, had been killed in what authorities say was a car crash. He is the latest in a string of collaborationist Ukrainian officials to die in recent weeks, and much of the pro-occupation administration had already been evacuated to the East of the Dnipro.

On 30 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree “annexing” the region, along with nearby Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk, following a referendum widely decried by the international community as a sham and marred by fraud and intimidation. That decision will make Kherson the largest city formally claimed by Moscow to have been liberated, and was the only regional capital captured by the Russians to date.

Institute for the Study of War via BBC

The retreat comes amid a spate of battlefield victories for Ukrainian defenders, who have in recent weeks taken back dozens of settlements as part of a counteroffensive further north, around the city of Kharkiv. In response to the setbacks, Putin announced that ordinary Russian citizens would begin to be drafted into the army to fill the gaps left by the tens of thousands of troops who have been captured, injured or killed.

Yet officials in Kyiv have urged caution in response to the news. “Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Zelensky, said in a statement to Reuters.

Meanwhile, pro-war Russian accounts on social media platform Telegram have gone into overdrive to insist that the colossal retreat is not a complete disaster. “If anyone thinks that the surrender of Kherson is the end of the war, they are mistaken,” one popular far-right channel claims. “Don’t be so happy. We will return, and your frozen hungry cities will be your grave.”

However, the loss of the Kherson evidently has the potential to be a turning point in a war that has already slipped out of Moscow’s control, and the abandonment of yet more territory that Moscow now insists is its own will only raise more questions about the leadership of the so-called “special military operation.”

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