Russia’s Defense Ministry says its troops are preparing to withdraw from a large part of the occupied Ukrainian region of Kherson, in a move that’s humiliating but also — after the developments of recent weeks — unsurprising.
The plan would give up thousands of square kilometers (including some of Ukraine’s best farmland) that Russia has occupied since the early days of the invasion, and was formally declared its territory just five weeks ago.
At a choreographed meeting in Moscow on Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Sergey Surovikin — the recently appointed commander of what Moscow refers to as its “special military operation” in Ukraine — put the best possible face on the withdrawal.
Since August, Russian troops have killed 9,500 Ukrainian soldiers in Kherson and successfully repelled “up to 80% to 90% of enemy missiles,” Surovikin claimed.
Nevertheless, a retreat would protect the lives of civilians and troops, he said.
“I understand that this is a very difficult decision, but at the same time we will preserve the most important thing — the lives of our servicemen and the overall combat capability of the grouping of troops, which is futile to keep on the right (west) bank in a limited area,” Surovikin said.
Russian commentators and officials have carefully avoided the word retreat, spinning the “withdrawal” as a smart military call to regroup on the eastern side of the river Dnipro, in defensible positions that Ukrainian forces would struggle to destroy.
It’s not known at this stage how the Ukrainians will respond. Their troops on the southern front lines are exhausted and the land ahead of them is likely to be heavily mined. Pursuing the Russian troops would shed more blood, as would any fighting in dense areas like Kherson city.