Russia is planning to retreat from the city of Kherson and play it off as a civilian evacuation, Western officials said today.
Putin’s troops are in the advanced stages of preparing for the retreat, the officials said, having moved conscripts into the city to cover the backs of the fleeing soldiers and beefed up defences on the other side of the Dnipro River.
While no final call has been made, officials believe Russian commanders have decided that Kherson ‘is not worth defending’ and that fleeing to better positions across the Dnipro will improve their chances of holding on as winter falls.
They spoke as footage emerged from Kherson showing a Russian flag that has been flying over city hall for months has suddenly disappeared.
Meanwhile Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, head of Russia’s central military district now thought to be responsible for defences in Donbas, has ‘probably’ been sacked.
Russia has removed a flag from the top of city hall in Kherson as Western officials say commanders are in advanced stages of planning a retreat
If the retreat goes ahead then Russia will attempt to play it off as an evacuation to protect civilians, officials said (file image, Ukrainian HIMARS in the region)
It comes after General Lapin came under heavy criticism from both Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin loyalists and hardliners, for perceived failings since the start of the war.
General Lapin was the last commander who ordered Russian forces across Ukraine’s border in February who was still in post.
His departure, if confirmed, speaks to a shift of power taking place inside the Kremlin away from the Ministry of Defence and to warlords such as Kadyrov – Chechen dictator – and Prigozhin – founder of Wagner.
News of Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson follows weeks of back-and-forth claims about the situation there – with Russia hinting the city is about to fall while Ukraine insists Putin is reinforcing it.
Complicating the situation is a near-total news blackout from Ukrainian forces on the frontlines as they try to break through Russian defences.
Two weeks ago, there was hope the city was on the verge of being liberated as General Surovikin – head of Russian forces in Ukraine – warned of a ‘tense’ situation and began evacuating civilians.
But as the days ticked by with no sign of a Ukrainian breakthrough, Kyiv began briefing that wet weather and mud was hindering its advance.
Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, then gave an interview in which he said Russia is sending reinforcements to the city and plans to defend it.
He confidently predicted that Kyiv’s forces would push the Russians out, but said it would take until the end of this month to do so.
Amidst the conflicting reports, some have suggested that Moscow is playing a disinformation game aimed at luring Ukraine into a death-trap.
Vladimir Putin (right) has ‘probably’ sacked Colonel-General Alexander Lapin (left), the commander thought to be responsible for defences in the Donbas
Workers clean debris off of the street in front of a destroyed storage complex in the recently recaptured village of Archangelske, Kherson Oblast
Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity on Thursday, sought to clarify the situation by saying Russia is planning an ‘orderly, well-planned and deliberate’ retreat to the east bank of the Dnipro.
Russia’s commanders have already crossed the river, they added, leaving a force of regular troops – largely conscripts – behind to face the Ukrainians.
However, they refused to say when the retreat might take place and admitted that Ukraine’s advances have been ‘slow going’ – which will likely get even slower as wetter weather turns the ground to mud.
Losing the city of Kherson – the only regional capital that Russian forces have captured since February – would be the most-humiliating loss Putin has yet suffered.
It is also the capital of the wider Kherson region, which he recently annexed to Russia and vowed to use ‘all forces’ to defend.
That has raised fears that he could deploy Russia’s nuclear arsenal, though the Western officials said they have not yet seen any sign of that happening.
Putin is likely to come under huge pressure from within Russia if Kherson falls.
The last retreat – a disorderly route in Kharkiv – saw sharp criticism levelled at his generals for failing to hold the territory and led to mobilistion being declared.
That order, in turn, sparked protests across Russia and saw hundreds of thousands flee the country, further worsening Putin’s situation.
Losing Kherson would also open the door for Ukraine to mount an offensive towards Crimea, the jewel in Putin’s imperialistic crown.
The peninsula was annexed during his last invasion, in 2014, and has become a symbol of Putin’s personal prowess and power as a Russian leader.
Losing control of that would spell disaster – not just for his invasion, but for his rule of Russia and could see him toppled from power.