LONDON/ KYIV: 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.
The announcement marked one of Russia’s most significant retreats and a potential turning point in the war, now nearing the end of its ninth month.
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 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.
Earlier, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up and one of the top figures in Moscow administration died on Wednesday in what Russian state media called a car crash, bringing more turmoil to a Russian-held area where Ukraine’s forces are advancing.
Images on the internet showed the span of the Darivka bridge on the main highway east out of the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine completely collapsed into the water of the Inhulets River, a tributary of the Dnipro River that bisects the country.
Reuters was able to verify the location of the images, though not how the bridge had been destroyed or by whom.
Ukrainians who posted the photos speculated it had been blown up by Russian troops in preparation for a retreat, but Oleh Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military analyst, told Reuters it could have been destroyed by Ukrainian saboteurs to isolate Russian forces on either side and “cut the fighting unit in half”.
Russian news agencies reported the death of Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian administration in Kherson, saying he had been killed in a car crash, though giving no further details of the circumstances.
Stremousov, one of the highest profile occupation figures, had hinted in recent days that Moscow might pull its forces out of the Russian-controlled pocket on the west bank of the Dnipro, the most closely watched sector of the front line.
Russia has ordered the evacuation of civilians from the area - Ukraine calls the measures a forced deportation - in anticipation of a major battle, while also hinting that it could pull back to more easily defended lines across the Dnipro. Kyiv says it does not expect the Russians to leave without a fight.
Russia’s military said it had repelled a Ukrainian advance at Snihurivka on the frontline 50 km (30 miles) north of Darivka along the Inhulets. The Russian-installed mayor there was cited by Russia’s RIA news agency as saying residents had seen tanks and that fierce fighting was going on.
“They got into contact during the day and said there were tanks moving around and, according to (residents’) information, heavy fighting on the edge of the town,” said the mayor, Yuri Barabashov. “People saw this equipment moving through the streets in the town centre.” Vitaly Kim, the Ukrainian governor of Mykolaiv region, which borders Kherson, suggested that Ukrainian forces had pushed the Russians out of the area.
“Russian troops are complaining that they have already been thrown out of there,” Kim said in a statement on his Telegram channel.
In Kherson city, the only regional capital Russia has captured since its attacks in February, power has been out for days. Russia blames Ukrainian sabotage. Kyiv says the Russians severed the power lines and have been trucking looted household appliances and building materials across the river.
Alexander Kots, a Russian war correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, reported from Kherson that Russian flags had been taken down from municipal buildings and even the animals from the zoo had been evacuated. Kyiv has said it is wary of such reports that could be a trap to lure its troops to advance.