Ukrainian troops are reportedly already in the outskirts of the city of Kherson on Friday morning, after Russia began withdrawing its troops.
But officials warned that Russian landmines could render Kherson a “city of death,” and that key infrastructure sites might be rigged to explode as Ukrainian soldiers as they enter the city.
Ukrainian officials acknowledged Moscow’s forces had no choice but to flee Kherson, yet they remained cautious, fearing an ambush. With Ukrainian officials tight-lipped with their assessments, reporters not present and spotty communications, it was difficult to know what was happening in the port city, where the residents who remained after tens of thousands fled were afraid to leave their homes.
A forced pullout from Kherson — the only provincial capital Moscow captured after invading Ukraine in February — would mark one of Russia’s worst war setbacks. Recapturing the city, which had a pre-war population of 280,000, could provide Ukraine a launching pad for supplies and troops to try to win back other lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.
Ukrainian forces seem to be scoring more battlefield successes elsewhere in the Kherson region and closing in on the city. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday night the pace has increased so much that residents “are now checking almost every hour where our units have reached and where else our national flag was raised.”
The armed forces commander-in-chief, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, said Kyiv’s forces have advanced 36.5 kilometers (22.7 miles) and retaken 41 villages and towns since Oct. 1 in the province, which the Kremlin has illegally annexed. That included 12 settlements on Wednesday alone.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Russian troops laid mines throughout Kherson as they withdrew to turn it into a “city of death” and predicted they would shell it after relocating across the Dnieper River.
From these new positions, the Kremlin could try to escalate the nine-month-long war, which US assessments showed may already have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
Arkadiy Dovzhenko, who fled Kherson in June, said his grandparents still living there told him Thursday that “the Russians were bringing a lot of equipment into the town and also mining every inch of it.”
Another resident said Kherson was deserted Thursday and that explosions could be heard from around Antonivskiy Bridge — a key Dnieper River crossing that Ukrainian forces have repeatedly bombarded.
“Life in the city seems to have stopped. Everyone has disappeared somewhere and no one knows what will happen next,” said Konstantin, a resident whose last name was withheld for security reasons.
He said Russian flags have disappeared from the city’s administrative buildings, and no signs remain of the Russian military personnel who earlier moved into the apartments of evacuated residents. Russian state news agency Tass reported that emergency services such as police officers and medical workers would leave along with the last Russian troops.
Zelenskyy said Thursday night his forces were racing to remove land mines from 170,000 square meters nationwide, and planned also to do so in Kherson. A spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern military, said on Ukrainian television that resistance forces working behind enemy lines “carefully collect information” about critical infrastructure threatened by mines.
Why are the Russians withdrawing?
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered a troop withdrawal from Kherson and nearby areas on Wednesday after his top general in Ukraine reported that a loss of supply routes during Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive made a defense “futile.”
Shoigu’s ministry reported Thursday a “maneuver of units of the Russian group” to the Dnieper River’s eastern bank, also known as its left bank.
On Thursday, Ukrainian officials appeared to soften the skepticism they had expressed over whether the Russians were really on the run or trying to trap Ukraine’s soldiers. “The enemy had no other choice but to resort to fleeing,” armed forces chief Zaluzhny said, because Kyiv’s army destroyed supply systems and disrupted Russia’s local military command.
Still, senior Ukrainian officials expressed caution in public statements about Russia’s intentions in Kherson.
Alexander Khara, of the Kyiv-based think tank Center for Defense Strategies, echoed those concerns, saying he remained fearful that Russian forces could destroy a dam upriver from Kherson and flood the city’s approaches. The former Ukrainian diplomat also warned of booby traps and other possible dangers.
“I would be surprised if the Russians had not set up something, some surprises for Ukraine,” Khara said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who just over a month ago celebrated the annexation of Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions and vowed to defend them by any means, has not commented on the withdrawal.