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Unlike previous Russian retreats which turned into panicked flight under Ukrainian fire, the ongoing withdrawal from the Kherson region is a much more orderly affair.
Russian forces retreated to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River following an order from the Russian military command, while Ukrainian troops cautiously advanced towards the city, capturing towns and villages on the way to Kherson.
There is a reason for caution.
Russia wants to “make Kherson a ‘city of death'” warned Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He said that the Russian army “mines everything they can: apartments, sewers. The left bank artillery plans to turn the city into ruins.
On Thursday afternoon, a group of Ukrainian servicemen posted images on social media of the village of Kyselivka, less than 30 kilometers north of Kherson and apparently abandoned by the Russian army. The soldiers waved the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine against the background of the administrative building of the village.
There was also clips Ukrainian troops greeted by tearful residents in other liberated villages.
When Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu ordered the withdrawal on Wednesday, Ukrainian officials feared the Russians were setting a trap. Now there is more of a feeling that the withdrawal may be real.
“Just as the enemy left kyiv and the Kharkiv region, left Snake Island, the likely exit from Kherson is the result of our active actions,” Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, said Thursday. He added: “The Ukrainian Defense Forces destroyed the logistics lines and the support system, disrupted the enemy’s command and control system. Thus, the enemy had no choice but to resort to flight.
He said that since early October, Ukrainian troops have advanced 36.5 kilometers into the Kherson region, liberating 41 settlements.
Zelenskyy spoke to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday, and they issued a joint statement saying: “Any withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied Kherson would show significant progress on the part of Ukrainian forces and confirm the weakness of the offensive Russian, but it would be fair to continue to exercise caution until the Ukrainian flag is hoisted over the city.
Kyiv’s caution stems from the more organized nature of the current Russian retreat; their retreat to the eastern region of Kharkiv in September looked more like a rout.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy’s office, said in an online interview late Wednesday that Russian troops are “withdrawing in a very organized fashion.”
There is no ‘quick flight’ of troops, he said, adding: “They retreated, but only from the first line of defence. Now they are defending the second and third lines… They destroy bridges behind them.Often they destroy bridges before they are removed, and they put pontoon bridges in places we don’t expect…They’ve gotten smarter.
He added that the Russian army was “mining on a large scale” the territories it was leaving to complicate the advance of Ukrainian units.
“Now there are two main questions: how long will the withdrawal take and will they hold the city of Kherson itself?” said Arestovych.
Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, called Wednesday’s announcement of Russia’s withdrawal by Shoygu and General Sergei Surovikin a “theatrical performance”.
“These are signals that Russia is sending in the war process to [domestic] information consumers and outsiders [of Russia]. But we remind once again that we do not trust the words of the Russian Federation,” Maliar told a press briefing.
“You can’t believe the Russians. We have been convinced of this on several occasions,” she added. “The art of war, in particular, includes the art of deceiving the enemy.”