Russia might be about to withdraw its troops from occupied Kherson

A damaged military vehicle is seen after the withdrawal of Russian forces in Balakliia, Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine, on Sept. 13, 2022.

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As Russian authorities continue a mass evacuation of civilians from occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine, defense analysts believe that the movement of people is setting the scene for Moscow to withdraw its troops from a significant part of the region.

Up to 60,000 civilians are expected to be evacuated in the next few days from the western part of the Kherson region, on the right-hand side of the Dnipro River, to the eastern bank of the river with residents told then to travel to other Russia-occupied regions.

Residents were told to leave Kherson after Russian-installed officials warned them that Ukraine is preparing to launch a large-scale offensive. Ukraine has decried the evacuations, likening them to deportations and telling residents not to comply.

Vladimir Saldo, the region’s Russian-installed acting governor, claimed that the evacuation was necessary as Ukraine was “building up forces for a large-scale offensive” and that Russia wanted to protect its citizens. Meanwhile, his deputy, Kirill Stremousov, said on Telegram late Tuesday that “in the very near future, the battle for Kherson will begin.”

“We cannot rule out that both Kherson and the right (west) bank (of the Dnipro River) of Kherson region will come under shelling,” Stremousov said Wednesday. On Thursday, he claimed Russian forces had repelled four attempts by Ukrainian troops to “break through in the Kherson direction.”

For its part, Ukraine has disputed that preface to the evacuations, saying Russia was trying to scare civilians and was using the evacuation as “propaganda.”

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry declined to comment further to CNBC on the situation in Kherson, however, in a sign that the military situation in Ukraine is highly sensitive.

That’s seemingly the case for both sides.

General Sergey Surovikin, the newly-appointed commander of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine described Russia’s “special military operation” (as it calls its invasion) in Ukraine as “tense,” adding that “further actions and plans regarding the city of Kherson will depend on the developing military-tactical situation, which is not easy.”

More enigmatically, he added: “We will act consciously, in a timely manner, without ruling out difficult decisions,” but refrained to give further details.

Setting the scene for withdrawal

Given the unguarded comments from Russian officials, analysts believe Russia is setting the scene now for an imminent withdrawal from a chunk of the whole Kherson region.

“Russian authorities are likely setting information conditions to justify planned Russian retreats and significant territorial losses in Kherson,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank said Wednesday. 

It said the recent statements by Russian officials “are likely attempts to set information conditions for a full Russian retreat across the Dnipro River, which would cede Kherson City and other significant territory in Kherson Oblast [province] to advancing Ukrainian troops.”

Another withdrawal for Russia would mark a further humiliation for Moscow; previous retreats by Russian forces from Kyiv, the outpost Snake Island or Kharkiv — or “tactical withdrawals” as Russia has characterized them — have made even the most pro-Kremlin figures in Russia critical of the country’s military officials and strategy.

The most recent humiliation for Moscow came when Ukraine flagged in the summer that it would launch a counteroffensive in the south, leading Russia to redeploy forces there, only for it to launch a massive surprise counterattack in the northeast of the country, allowing it to recapture a swathe of territory.

Russian Foreign Ministry building is seen behind a social advertisement billboard showing Z letters – a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine and reading “Victory is being Forged in Fire” in central Moscow on October 13, 2022.

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“Russian military leaders have evidently learned from previous informational and operational failures during the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv [in northeastern Ukraine] and are therefore likely attempting to mitigate the informational and operational consequences of failing to defend against another successful Ukrainian advance,” the analysts noted.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense agreed and said Thursday in its latest intelligence update that it believes it’s probable that Russia is considering pulling troops out of a part of Kherson.

The ministry noted that General Surovikin’s comments — plus his approval of plans to evacuate residents from the region — “likely indicates that the Russian authorities are seriously considering a major withdrawal of their forces from the area west of the Dnipro river,” although it noted such a maneuver could be tricky.

“A key challenge of any Russian withdrawal operation would be extracting troops and their equipment across the 1000 meter wide river in good order.”

“With all the permanent bridges severely damaged, Russia would highly likely rely heavily on a temporary barge bridge it completed near Kherson in recent days, and military pontoon ferry units, which continue to operate at several locations,” the ministry said.

False flag attack

Tensions centered on Kherson on Thursday with Russia’s defense ministry claiming that Ukraine’s armed forces “had tried to break through the defense of the Russian troops” by “wedging into the defence” of Russian units near Sukhanovo in the Kherson region. It insisted that Russian troops had “completely” restored the frontline of defense in the entire direction.

There are now concerns that Russia has plans to cover a retreat with a false-flag attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, up river from Kherson city, with the ISW think tank noting that “the Russian military may believe that breaching the dam could cover their retreat from the right bank of the Dnipro River and prevent or delay Ukrainian advances across the river.” 

Russia has claimed to have “information,” but presenting no evidence, that Kyiv intends to strike the dam at the Kakhovka HPP while Ukraine has said that, if Russia’s forces blow up the power plant, that will lead to a catastrophe with a high number of casualties.

“Russian authorities likely intend these warnings about a purported Ukrainian strike on the Kakhovka HPP to set information conditions for Russian forces to damage the dam and blame Ukraine for the subsequent damage and loss of life, all while using the resulting floods to cover their own retreat further south into Kherson Oblast.”

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