Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that civilians in Kherson must be “removed” from the city as a battle for it could be coming soon.
“Now, of course, those who live in Kherson must be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions,” the Russian leader said, adding that citizens “must not suffer” from attacks in the city, according to The Moscow Times.
Putin’s comments come as Russian troops have reportedly abandoned checkpoints in the occupied Ukrainian region of Kherson in recent days. In addition, Russian flags have been removed from the administration building in Kherson, as well as a city council building, according to reports.
However, the Ukrainian military has said that Russia’s withdrawal from the area could be a tactic to catch them off guard.
“It could be a provocation to give the impression that the settlements are abandoned, that it is safe to enter them,” Ukraine military spokesperson Natalia Gumenyuk said, according to The Moscow Times.
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Russians have focused on establishing defensive positions outside the city of Kherson. Ivan, a resident of the city, told the newspaper: “I think that they are removing their personnel so that in the case of a breakthrough of the defensive lines, they can easily shell the city.”
For weeks, Ukrainian forces have been executing a counteroffensive in southeastern Ukraine, pushing towards the city of Kherson.
On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he believed Ukraine’s military could retake the city.
“On the issue of whether the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the west side of the Dnipro river and in Kherson, I certainly believe that they have the capability to do that,” Austin said, according to Reuters. “Most importantly, the Ukrainians believe they have the capability to do that. We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to take back their sovereign territory.”
Newsweek has reached out to the Russian and Ukrainian defense ministries for comment.
In a report released in late October, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) predicted that Ukraine will be able to retake control of a portion of the Kherson oblast, but not the entire region, by the end of the year.
“I think that, as far as the end-of-the-year campaign assessment is concerned, Ukrainian forces will likely capture the Northern bank of the river….It’s necessary that the Ukrainians establish a defensive position on the Southern bank of the river; however, I think it would be optimistic to say the Ukrainians would likely, additionally do that by the end of the year,” George Barros, a Russia and Ukraine analyst at the ISW, told Newsweek.
Since Russia first invaded Ukraine on February 24, the U.S. and other Western nations have continued to provide the Eastern European country with military assistance. Using different air defense systems provided by the U.S., Ukraine has been able to destroy numerous Russian drones.