Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered his troops to withdraw from the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson on November 10 in a major military setback.
Russia has been struggling to hold the city for months, its only asset in western Ukraine and the only regional capital that it captured early in the war. Russian forces have been ordered to take up defensive lines on the opposite bank of the River Dnipro in eastern Ukraine.
The withdrawal comes at the end of a months-long Ukrainian counter-offensive that threatened Kherson but then drove into the region around the eastern city of Kharkiv with spectacular success. Ukrainian forces have cleared most of the forces around Kharkiv and retaken some of the territory in in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that have been under Russian occupation for nearly eight years.
In the build-up before the Ukrainian counteroffensive began Russia moved some 20-30 battalion tactical group (BTGs) to Kherson in its defence. However, Ukraine pounded the three bridges across the Dnipro river, making it increasingly difficult for Russia to keep the city supplied.
General Sergei Surovikin, who has been recently appointed the overall command of the war, told Shoigu in televised comments that it was no longer possible to keep Kherson city supplied.
"Having comprehensively assessed the current situation, it is proposed to take up defence along the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro River," said Surovikin, Reuters reports.
"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, in general, the combat effectiveness of the group of troops, which it is futile to keep on the right bank in a limited area."
Notably, President Vladimir Putin has not commented on the withdrawal and appears to be letting the military take the blame for the strategic setback.
The potential withdrawal has been on the cards for several weeks after the authorities ordered some 100,000 residents to evacuate the city. Kherson was one of the four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia in September, which Putin said would be part of Russia “forever.”
The UN voted overwhelmingly to condemn the annexation of the four regions shortly afterwards. The resolution on October 13 "condemns the organisation by the Russian Federation of so-called referendums within the internationally recognised borders of Ukraine" and "the attempted illegal annexation" of Ukraine’s territory. The motion also demanded that Moscow "immediately and unconditionally reverse" its annexation decisions.
"I agree with your conclusions and proposals,” Shoigu told Surovikin. “For us, the life and health of Russian servicemen is always a priority. We must also take into account the threats to the civilian population. Proceed with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnipro river."
Russia’s military forces have suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Ukrainian army and Russia’s high command is increasingly worried about a possible political backlash at home if too many soldiers are killed.
Russia recently threw an extra 300,000 conscripts into the fray after Putin launched a “partial mobilisation” in the middle of September. That caused an estimated million Russian men to flee the country to avoid the draft. Putin has since announced the mobilisation is over.
The decision comes as the Kremlin has begun to signal that it is open to talks with Kyiv on the possibility of ending the war.
The US has been in secret talks with the Kremlin, US National Security advisor Jake Sullivan admitted recently, and has advised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to soften his line on refusing to negotiate with Putin. Bankova repeated that it was willing to talk to Russia if it was prepared to negotiate in “good faith” on November 10, but notably dropped the refusal to talk with Putin in what many see as a concession to US pressure.
The improved prospects for peace talks and Russia’s strategic withdrawal from Kherson come at a time when “Ukraine fatigue” has noticeably increased as the economic cost of the Ukrainian war weighs on the rest of the world.