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Retreat or a trap? Russia signals a surprise withdrawal from a key city, but Ukrainians are wary

“To me, the preponderance of evidence points to a Russian decision to steadily retreat from the right river bank and avoid being cut off there,” one expert said.

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian control of the key southern Ukrainian city of Kherson appeared increasingly in doubt Thursday after officials suggested that the Kremlin's troops would withdraw from the west bank of the Dnieper River

Just weeks after Moscow claimed the area, Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy civilian administrator of the Kherson region, said that the troops would try and regroup on the other side of the river. 

“Most likely, our units, our soldiers, will leave for the left (eastern) bank,” he said in an interview with Solovyov Live, a pro-Kremlin online media outlet. Civilians remaining in Kherson city should leave immediately as they are putting their lives in danger, he added.

His comments came after several pro-Kremlin bloggers posted videos and images that NBC News has verified of the Kherson administration building without the Russian flag, although the white, blue and red tricolor still appeared to be flying above several other government buildings.

A classroom in the Kherson region village of Arkhanhelske on Nov. 3, 2022.
A classroom in the village of Arkhanhelske in the Kherson region Thursday.Bulent Kilic / AFP - Getty Images

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a news conference Thursday that he thought that Ukraine must press on with its offensive to take the remaining territory in the Kherson area.

“I certainly believe that they have the capability to do that,” he said. “More importantly the Ukrainians believe they have the capability.”

Russia has fought for months to hang on to the pocket of land it holds on the west bank of the river that bisects Ukraine, as well as Kherson city,  the only major Ukrainian city that Russian forces have captured intact, since the invasion began Feb. 24

Moscow declared at the end of September that it had annexed Kherson, along with the Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzia regions after staging referendums that were denounced by Kyiv and the West as illegal and rigged. 

And it has poured in tens of thousands of troops as reinforcements in the region, which is also home to the huge Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper. The dam holds back an enormous reservoir and controls the water supply to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.

However, late last month, Russian-installed authorities ordered residents to leave the city, saying in a statement on their Telegram channel that they should board boats across the Dnieper. They added that all departments and ministries of the Kremlin-installed administration should also evacuate.

Ukrainian forces have targeted the main river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply its huge force on the river’s west bank. Since bursting through the Russian front line at the start of October, they have advanced down the river. 

However, they have been cautious about whether Russia is, in fact, vacating positions in the area.  

Yurii Sobolevskyi, the deputy head of Ukraine’s Kherson regional council, remained cautious about the Russian forces’ intentions.

“Within Kherson city limits, the number of Russian checkpoints has been reduced, and the Russians have taken down their flags from some of the administrative buildings they have occupied,” he told NBC News by telephone Thursday.

“We have information that there is still a lot of both Russian military personnel and equipment there,” said Sobolevskyi, who is not based in the city but speaks regularly to people still living there. “These actions could be a provocation to lure Armed Forces of Ukraine into a trap.” 

Ukrainian artillery unit members get prepared to fire towards Kherson on Oct. 28, 2022.
Ukrainian artillery troops prepare to fire toward Kherson late last month.Bulent Kilic / AFP - Getty Images

Michael Kofman, the research program director in the Russia studies program at CNA, a Washington-area think tank, said in Twitter posts that the situation in Kherson was “clear as mud.”

“Russian forces seemed to withdraw from some parts, evacuated, and drew down, but also reinforced with mobilized personnel,” he said in one of several posts on the subject, adding that the fighting there was “difficult.” 

Despite “constrained supply,” he said, Russia forces did not appear to be out of ammunition. 

“To me the preponderance of evidence points to a Russian decision to steadily retreat from the right river bank and avoid being cut off there, while also trying to exact a high cost,” he added.

If Ukraine were to force a Russian retreat from Kherson’s right bank, he said, it would bring Kyiv's “systems within range of some ground lines of communication from Crimea.”

Artem Grudinin reported from Kyiv, Henry Austin from London and Courtney Kube from Washington.