Ukrainian forces are preparing to fight for Kherson City, the only regional capital Russia has captured since invading in February, but it's not clear if Russian troops are planning to defend the occupied city or retreat to the east side of the Dnipro River.
Residents of Kherson told The New York Times by phone Thursday that Russian soldiers, patrols, and checkpoints are suddenly extremely scarce in the city center, the Russian flag is no longer flying over government offices, and Kremlin-appointed administrators have all moved to a new regional capital 50 miles away, after thoroughly looting the city.
Ukrainian intelligence says Russia has sent 40,000 troops across the Dnipro to make sure Kherson doesn't fall, but a Western official said Thursday that most Russian commanders have withdrawn from the city and across the Dnipro, leaving "pretty demoralized" and sometimes "woefully equipped and unprepared" troops behind to face Ukrainian forces, the Times reports. Kherson City occupation deputy Kirill Stremousov said on Russian state television Thursday that Russian forces "will most likely leave" for the eastern bank of the Dnipro.
Stremousov is "an unreliable source," the Institute for the Study of War said Thursday, adding that it "has observed that Russian forces are continuing to prepare fallback positions on the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro River while continuing to set up defensive positions northwest of Kherson City and transporting additional mobilized forces there, despite Stremousov's statement."
The signs of Russia's withdrawal "might be a provocation in order to create the impression that they have left the settlements and it is safe to enter them," Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's southern command, said Thursday. "Considering the fact that they have been preparing for street fighting for a long time and the way they are positioning their units, we are aware that this might be a planned tactical action."
Ukrainian forces are making slow progress toward Kherson, at great cost, ABC News reports.
Stepping back, Russia "has shown no indication that it is willing to give up the city, or the broader Kherson region, which carries enormous strategic and political importance for the Kremlin," The Washington Post reports. Whenever it starts, the fight for Kherson City "may become the biggest battle of President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, and perhaps the single best test of whether Moscow ends up winning any significant territory from its invasion or is forced to retreat empty-handed."