Russian state media on Wednesday showed video of people lining up for ferryboats to take them across Ukraine's Dnipro River from the strategic Black Sea port city of Kherson, away from Ukrainian forces who are closing in to try and retake the city.
The Russian-appointed regional leader of Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said Tuesday that officials would be evacuating civilians, including Russian occupation ministries and departments, in an "organized, gradual displacement." Civilians in the city received "Evacuate immediately!" text messages Wednesday, and occupation officials distributed pamphlets warning that Ukrainian forces were approaching and claiming they will shell the city. Ukraine's military is maintaining operational silence in Kherson.
Saldo and other occupation officials insisted Russian forces are not retreating from Kherson. But Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the new top Russian commander in Ukraine, acknowledged Tuesday that his army faces "hard decisions" in Kherson, and suggested retreat is an option. "Our future plans and actions regarding the city of Kherson will depend on the unfolding military-tactical situation," he said on television. "I repeat — today it is already quite difficult."
"Surovikin's announcement highlighting negative news about the 'special military operation' is highly unusual," Britain's Ministry of Defense said early Thursday. "It likely indicates that the Russian authorities are seriously considering a major withdrawal of their forces from the area west of the Dnipro River."
"Russian authorities are likely setting information conditions to justify planned Russian retreats and significant territorial losses in Kherson Oblast," the Institute for the Study of War research group concurred, and "attempting to mitigate the informational and operational consequences of failing to defend against another successful Ukrainian advance."
Civilians inside Kherson told BBC News and The Wall Street Journal they aren't being forced to leave and have no plans to do so. "People are not panicking, nobody wants to be evacuated," one woman told the BBC. Serhiy Khlan, an aide to the ousted Ukrainian leader of Kherson, called the televised ferry crossings "deportation theater" possibly meant to cover "the withdrawal of troops." Russia is already starting to establish a new regional capital at Henichesk, he added.
Recapturing Kherson would be a huge "prize" for Ukraine and "a humiliation" for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Journal explains. "If Russia's military is forced to abandon the city — the only Ukrainian provincial capital captured since its February invasion of the country — it would be a significant blow to the Kremlin and could mark a potential turning point in the monthslong conflict."