A high-ranking Russian commander has announced that Russian soldiers are vacating the western portion of Kherson oblast, drawing responses of disbelief from Ukrainian officials.
Sergey Surovikin, who in October became the new commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, said his soldiers would be moving back to the Dnieper River.
“It is expedient to organize defense along the barrier line of the Dnieper River, along its left bank,” Surovikin said, according to Kremlin-backed media organization RIA Novosti. “The decision to [go] on defending the left bank of the Dnieper did not come easily, but at the same time we will preserve the lives of our soldiers and the combat capability of the troop group.”
He added that the transfer “will be carried out in the near future.”
It was reportedly agreed upon by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Galina Lugovaya, head of the Kherson city military administration, expressed hesitance to Kherson media outlet Most about Surovikin’s statement.
“They will not surrender Kherson without a fight,” said Lugovaya, who acknowledged Russian issues with fuel in the region. “This is a trap to mislead our military. Not everything is as smooth as the enemies make it out to be.”
It is a sentiment shared by Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Podolyak tweeted. “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight. A part of the ru-group is preserved in the city, and additional reserves are charged to the region. [Ukraine] is liberating territories based on intelligence data, not staged TV statements.”
Ukrainian officials have been perplexed for nearly a week, since the Russian-installed deputy civilian administrator of the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, told a state media outlet that troops would regroup on the opposite side of the Dnieper.
Stremousov died Wednesday in a car crash on the Kherson-Armyansk highway in Kherson.
Yuri Sobolevskyi, the deputy head of Ukraine’s Kherson regional council, told NBC News that Russians’ removal of flags from occupied administrative buildings in Kherson could have been done to lure in Ukrainian soldiers as a trap.
“Russian troops are trying hard to convince everyone they are retreating but at the same time we are seeing objective evidence that they are staying,” Ukrainian spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk told CNN.
In late October, an assessment from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) predicted that Ukraine would take over the upper portion of the oblast but not the entire region by year’s end.
“Russian forces have begun a partial withdrawal from northwestern Kherson oblast even while preparing to defend Kherson City,” the ISW said in a Russian offensive campaign assessment. “They have not launched into a full withdrawal from the city or the oblast as of this report.”
Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser and political commentator, told The Guardian that the decision to leave Kherson would have “catastrophic consequences.”
“In Russia, many fear that the decision to leave Kherson has already been made,” Markov said. “It is the wrong decision. It could have catastrophic consequences for Russia.”
Newsweek reached out to the Ukrainian and Russian defense ministries for comment.