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Russia moves civilians out of key Ukrainian city as Putin's military signals a new setback

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was imposing martial law in the southern region of Kherson and three other annexed areas.

While President Vladimir Putin was announcing martial law in four illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, Russia was launching a mass evacuation of civilians from one of the areas as its military signaled it might not be able to hold on much longer.

Moscow-appointed officials expressed fears that a battle for the strategically crucial city of Kherson in Ukraine’s south may be imminent after weeks of pressure from Kyiv’s troops to recapture territory Russia seized in the early days of the war and annexed illegally just last month.

Putin announced he was imposing martial law in Kherson and the three other annexed areas at a meeting of his Security Council on Wednesday. The move will give local officials more power over the occupied populace, but it’s unclear what impact that will have as battlefield setbacks and rare domestic criticism fuel growing Western concerns about the potential for further escalation.

Russia evacuates people from Ukraine's Kherson region - 19 Oct 2022
Residents disembark from a boat during evacuations in Kherson, southern Ukraine, in images released Wednesday. Kherson City Administration / EPA via Shutterstock

The new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine said Tuesday that his troops in the country’s south were facing “a rather difficult” situation after a Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed them back and threatened their supply lines.

“Our further plans and actions regarding the city of Kherson itself will depend on the emerging military tactical situation,” Gen. Sergei Surovikin said. “Difficult decisions could not be ruled out,” he added in a rare interview with Russian state television not long after he was installed by the Kremlin.  

The rare admission follows weeks of harsh criticism of Moscow’s military leadership by the country’s vocal pro-war faction, accusing officials of humiliating failures they then sought to cover up with domestic propaganda. The hard-line critics cheered the appointment of Surovikin, nicknamed “General Armageddon” for his brutality, and the subsequent wave of attacks on infrastructure and civilian targets across Ukraine. 

The Kremlin’s hawks welcomed the sobering public assessment as a marked departure from its approach to what it still calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine. 

Image: Russian Joint Group of Forces Commander Surovikin interview
Gen. Sergei Surovikin speaks with journalists in Moscow on Tuesday. Russian Defence Ministry / via EPA

Russian-installed officials in the region then announced the evacuation of as many as 60,000 civilians from the right bank of the Dnieper river — where Ukrainians have made recent advances — farther south or into Russia.

Voluntary evacuations in the region were first announced last week, but the new statements carried a sudden urgency. 

“The Ukrainian side is building up forces for a large-scale offensive,” the head of the Moscow-appointed regional administration, Vladimir Saldo, said Tuesday in a message on the Telegram messaging app, urging his fellow residents to leave as, he said, Russian forces were erecting defenses. 

His deputy, Kirill Stremousov, was more direct, saying in a separate message on Telegram, “In the very near future, the battle for Kherson will begin.” No one is planning to surrender the city, he added as he urged residents to take the warnings seriously and not get “in the way” of the Russian military as it digs in. 

Civilians were already crossing the river by boat Wednesday morning, the Russian state news agency Tass reported as text messages with urgent reminders were sent out to residents, and Saldo said there would be no entry to the right bank of the Dnieper for at least seven days. 

Image: The checkpoint in the town of Armyansk in the north of Moscow-annexed Crimean peninsula bordering the Russian-controlled Kherson region in southern Ukraine on Oct. 19, 2022.
The checkpoint in the town of Armyansk in the north of the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula bordering the Russian-controlled Kherson region in southern Ukraine on Wednesday.via AFP - Getty Images

Some in Kyiv saw the effort as a sign of the Kremlin’s weakening grip.

“Reality can hurt if you live in a fictional fantasy world,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on Twitter. Local Ukrainian officials urged people to ignore evacuation calls, arguing that the Russians “want to take our people hostage and use them as human shields.”

Kherson is a strategic gateway to the Black Sea and the neighboring Crimean Peninsula, and it has been critical in cementing Moscow’s grasp on the area. It is the only regional center that Russia has controlled since the start of the war. 

Ukraine has been laying the ground for a counteroffensive there for months, striking key bridges and military infrastructure, while also advancing in the east. Kyiv said this month that had it liberated a number of settlements after an initial breakthrough in the north of the region.

Losing Kherson would be a major blow to the Kremlin, which has intensified its commitment to the conflict — boosting its ailing forces with a troop call-up, hitting civilians and energy infrastructure and issuing renewed nuclear threats.

The evacuations and comments appeared to suggest that Russia was preparing for a decisive fight for Kherson, but Western military analysts said they could also signal that the Kremlin may be planning a withdrawal to avoid the threat of another haphazard retreat like the one in Ukraine’s northeast last month.

The introduction of martial law in the four occupied regions is likely a “face-saving” measure for Putin as he faces the prospect of giving up more ground in Kherson, said the head of intelligence at the Le Beck consultancy, Michael A. Horowitz, a geopolitical and security analyst.

And given Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons to defend territories he considers Russian, Horowitz added, Wednesday’s move may be an attempt to further raise the ante in that sense.

“The Russian military has been rumored to be pushing for a withdrawal for weeks, with some pushback from the Kremlin, and we may be seeing a reversal of this policy,” he said. “The partial mobilization hasn’t changed the broader dynamic and is quite unpopular in Russia, so Moscow may be forced to make some ‘difficult’ decisions, including abandoning Kherson or laying the groundwork for such a decision if necessary.”

While the Russian-installed officials warned civilians to flee before a Ukrainian offensive, analysts said Kyiv’s troops may want to force Moscow’s military to abandon Kherson without a fight.

“Ukrainians in this war avoid urban battles, and by enveloping Russian units, they force them to retreat,” said Konrad Muzyka, the director of Rochan Consulting, based in Poland, which specializes in Russia and Belarus. “I think they will want to do the same in Kherson.”

Still, Surovikin’s frankness about the state of affairs in the region was “odd,” he said, and it raises questions about what really might be brewing, considering that “Russians hardly ever officially admit that something is wrong or about to go wrong.”