Russia’s announcement that it has completed its withdrawal from the key city of Kherson and nearby areas represents one of the war’s most significant moments in months.
Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russian forces had captured since February’s invasion. Their withdrawal east across the Dnipro River cedes large swathes of land that Russia has occupied since the early days of the war, and that President Vladimir Putin had formally declared as Russian territory just five weeks ago.
As Russian troops have retreated, Ukrainian troops have pushed forward cautiously, amid warnings from Kyiv that fleeing Russian troops may have left behind a trail of boobytraps and devastation.
The Ukrainian military on Friday said that Russia was destroying critical infrastructure as they retreated, while shelling recently vacated territory from new defensive positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
On Friday the main bridge across the Dnipro River linking Kherson city to the eastern part of the region was destroyed, which would make any attempts by the Ukrainians to pursue fleeing Russians across the river more difficult.
President Volodymyr Zelensky struck a note of caution earlier this week, saying Ukrainian forces would “move very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk.” His troops on the southern front lines are exhausted and the land ahead of them is likely to be heavily mined. Pursuing the Russian troops would shed more blood.
And in spite of the retreat, Russia will still retain control of 60% of the Kherson region, including the coastline along the Sea of Azov. So long as Moscow’s troops control and fortify the Dnipro’s east bank, Ukrainian forces will struggle to damage or disrupt the canal that carries fresh water to neighboring Crimea.
While the Kremlin has attempted to put the best possible face on the withdrawal, it is undoubtedly a humiliating setback for President Vladimir Putin, who just weeks ago said residents of Kherson had become Russian citizens “forever.”
And while Putin’s spokesman insisted Friday that Kherson region remains part of Russia, the facts on the ground tell a different story.