Russia announced its withdrawal from the key Ukrainian city of Kherson on Wednesday, a move that many expected would be welcomed by Kyiv as a major victory following weeks of sustained advances in its counteroffensive.
But Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, have urged caution and say they are skeptical of Russia’s intentions in retreating from the western portion of the southern Kherson region.
“Our emotions must be restrained. The enemy does not bring us gifts,” Zelensky said in an evening address to the nation on Wednesday. “Therefore, we move very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk.”
Kherson became the first major region to fall to Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s forces after the war began. It had been Russia’s biggest military achievement of the conflict, in part due to its strategic location and proximity to Crimea.
Kherson is one of four territories that Putin illegally annexed in September following sham referendums.
Sergey Surovikin, who became the new head of Russia’s forces in Ukraine in October, said on Wednesday that his troops would be retreating across the Dnieper River to “preserve the lives of our soldiers and the combat capability of the troop group.” The transfer “will be carried out in the near future,” he added.
The withdrawal was announced nine months into the war, after weeks of advances by Kyiv toward the city, and as Russia moved to evacuate hundreds of thousands of its residents.
The Art of War
Quick to express caution was Nataliia Humeniuk, head of the joint coordination press center of Ukraine’s Southern Defense and Security Forces. She suggested that Russia’s statement on the withdrawal may be part of a psychological operation to mislead Kyiv.
“Our defense forces do not rule out provocations on the part of the Russian occupiers as they might be creating a false impression about their true intentions,” she told Ukrainian news outlet Suspilne.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, is another Ukrainian official to express skepticism about the Russian withdrawal.
He said that a significant number of Russian military personnel remain in the Kherson region and that Kyiv sees no signs that Russia will retreat without a fight, despite the statements made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, meanwhile, told reporters that “Russians cannot be trusted” and that “the art of war includes the art of deceiving the enemy.”
A Ukrainian military source told Ukrainskaya Pravda that Russia could be buying time to construct a line of defense on the eastern part of the Dnieper River, where Russian forces are supposedly withdrawing to.
“In order to strengthen the coast all the way to Kherson and beyond, the Russians will need additional time. Therefore, we should not hope that they will surrender in a day. They need to keep the Ukrainian forces on the right bank as long as possible. But, of course, we are not waiting either, and we are trying to advance,” the unnamed source said.
Was Kirill Stremousov’s Death Staged?
The announcement from Moscow also came just hours after the reported death of the Russian-installed deputy civilian administrator of the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov.
A Ukrainian official also expressed skepticism about the reports of his death, suggesting that it could be staged, given the widespread coverage by state-run Russian news agencies. He was killed in a car crash, the Kremlin-installed regional chief, Volodymyr Saldo, said on Wednesday.
“Regarding the information spread by the occupiers and Russian sources regarding the death of collaborator Kirill Stremousov in an accident, so far we can neither confirm nor deny the information. It may be true, or it may be staged,” Yuriy Sobolevskyi, first deputy head of the Ukrainian Kherson regional council, said on his Telegram channel.
Fears for Kakhovka HPP
Ukrainian officials also fear that Russian forces will strike the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant (HPP).
For weeks, Zelensky has warned that Russian forces may be preparing to carry out a false-flag attack on the plant. According to the leader, 80 settlements, including the city of Kherson, could be flooded if Russia blows up the power plant’s dam.
Zelensky repeated the warnings on Wednesday evening.
“Once more, I want to specifically warn everyone who is making the decisions in this regard in Moscow: any attempt by you to blow up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, flood our land and leave the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant without water will mean that you are declaring war on the entire world. Think about what will happen to you then,” he said.
Ukraine’s Operational Command South has said Russian forces could target the dam “as a measure of last resort,” should their defenses in Kherson fail.
Neil Melvin, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), previously told Newsweek that the destruction of the dam would cause significant economic damage to the downstream areas and civilian death and displacement.
“It would also harm Ukraine’s ability to generate electricity as the country heads into winter,” said Melvin.
Melvin also said that the dam is equally a means for Russian troops to cross the Dnieper river, and Moscow wants to “prevent a breakout” by Ukrainian forces into the southern areas that are occupied on the eastern bank.
Newsweek reached out to the Ukrainian and Russian Ministries of Foreign Affairs for comment.