Russia’s armed forces are retreating from the front lines in southern Ukraine after losing significant swaths of territory in recent days, a Moscow-appointed official has said.
Kirill Stremousov, appointed on Wednesday by President Vladimir Putin as Russia’s acting governor of the Kherson region, said Russia’s troops in the area were “regrouping to get their strength together and strike back”, reported state newswire Ria Novosti.
The comments are the first time Russia has admitted retreating in the Kherson region, less than a week after Putin annexed it alongside three other Ukrainian provinces on Friday.
Putin’s bold move to raise the stakes by reframing the seven-month invasion as a defensive conflict, mobilising the army’s reserves and threatening to use his nuclear arsenal to defend what he claims is now Russian territory has failed to stem Ukraine’s advance.
Backed with western weaponry against an outgunned, outnumbered Russian contingent, Ukraine has made steady advances in the south and east along the 1,000km front line as it vows to reclaim all the land now occupied by Russia.
Despite a lavish ceremony that involved signing “treaties” in the Kremlin with the four “governors” and a huge concert in Red Square, Russia does not control any of the four territories in full and has already lost ground in all of them since the annexation.
Although Putin has vowed to “liberate” the industrial heartland of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east in full, Ukraine’s battlefield successes have put the Kremlin in the awkward position of not being able to say how much of Kherson and the neighbouring Zaporizhzhia region it is actually annexing.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the Kremlin had not yet determined whether it wanted to assert its control over all of the regions’ territory but indicated Russia wanted to reclaim the ground it had lost in recent days.
“There are certain territories that will be liberated in any case, and we will continue to consult the population that expresses a desire to live with Russia,” Peskov told reporters, according to Interfax.
“There is no contradiction here. They will be with Russia forever and will be returned,” said Peskov.
Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield have been met with derision by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s officials.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser in Zelenskyy’s office, wrote in a tweet that the “Kremlin hesitates to announce ‘new borders’ because ‘Russian territory’ becomes smaller and smaller daily”.
Ukrainian troops were moving fast, aided by western-supplied night vision equipment and maps detailing live reconnaissance from drones, said a western diplomat. They are repeating a military tactic that has worked well for them in the east, aiming to encircle Russian troops instead of facing them head-on right away.
In the Kherson region, the flat terrain has sped up the advance, and with the Dnipro river forming a natural barrier to the east, Ukrainian forces have to push simultaneously only along two axes — from the north to the south, and from the west to the east.
As a result, Russian troops have had to fall back towards Kherson city, a prize that fell into their hands early in the full-blown invasion, and whose liberation has become a rallying cry for President Zelenskyy. But Ukrainian troops have far to travel; even the most optimistic updates place them about 100km from the city, where as many as 20,000 Russian troops are waiting.
Before they reach the outskirts of the city, they will have to battle for control of the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, where residents have described a strong Russian troop presence. The dam controls the supply of water to a canal that supplies Crimea, the Ukrainian province forcibly annexed by Russia in 2014.
Using US-supplied precision missiles fired from Himars, Ukrainian troops have already weakened a small bridge at the dam to blunt Russian efforts to resupply its military west of the river. The Ukrainians have also weakened a major bridge near Kherson.
In neighbouring Zaporizhzhia, Russia said it would take full control of a nuclear power plant in the town of Energodar despite pleas from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s atomic watchdog, for its return to Ukrainian control and an end to “persistent violent actions” endangering safety at the site.
Kyiv and Moscow have repeatedly accused each other’s forces of shelling the plant and the nearby electricity grid infrastructure.
“It’s just a pity that they are trying to drag into this Ukrainian nuclear power plant workers, who have been heroically working under occupation for more than seven months. Experiencing this madness on their own every day, they continue to ensure the nuclear and radiation safety of Ukraine and Europe,” Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear power holding, said in a statement.