Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that civilians in Ukraine’s Kherson region should be evacuated from the conflict zone, the Kremlin chief’s first acknowledgement of a deteriorating situation in a region he claims to have annexed.
“Now, of course, those who live in Kherson should be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions, because the civilian population should not suffer,” Putin told pro-Kremlin activists as he marked Russia’s Day of National Unity.
Putin’s remark, which came unprompted after one activist told the Russian president on Red Square about his work delivering Russian flags to Kherson, was shown on state television and reported by state news agency RIA.
Within hours of his comment, Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy governor of the Kherson region said a 24-hour curfew has been imposed on Kherson City, amid what he said was a likely Ukrainian offensive.
In video message posted on Telegram, said that the curfew was necessary “in order to defend our city of Kherson” from what he referred to as “terrorist attacks.”
He also repeated earlier calls for civilians to leave the city, saying that columns of Ukrainian vehicles had been spotted on areas of the frontline and that an attack was possible.
His message comes amid growing questions about whether Russian forces will stay and wage a bloody battle for the city of Kherson, or were signaling an imminent retreat. Some Ukrainian officials warned Thursday that signs of a potential Russian withdrawal from the crucial southern city could be a trap.
Russian-installed officials in Kherson region, one of four Ukrainian provinces that Putin declared part of Russia at a Kremlin ceremony in September, have pleaded for civilians to leave the region’s west, where Ukrainian forces have retaken ground in recent weeks.
On Thursday, Kherson’s Russian-appointed deputy governor Kirill Stremousov issued several video appeals for civilians to leave the part of the province on the west bank of the Dnipro river. He said that Russian forces would likely soon give up the west bank of the Dnipro to Ukraine.
Kherson region, the majority of which Russia has controlled since shortly after launching its military campaign in Ukraine on Feb. 24, is seen as strategically crucial, controlling both overland access and much of the water supply to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
It remains the only regional capital that Russia has captured since February.
Ukraine announced a counteroffensive in Kherson in August, driving Russian forces from much of the region’s north in September.
Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the new commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, has previously referred to a difficult situation in Kherson.
Putin said that the partial mobilization he ordered last month had led to the call- up of 318,000 people, with nearly 50,000 already engaged in combat, according to state news agency TASS.
The Russian leader has signed a law allowing the mobilization of people who have committed serious crimes, RIA news agency said on Friday. The law excludes those convicted of child sex abuse, treason, spying or terrorism, RIA said.