A general view of the city of Kherson. (Photo: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO via REUTERS)
Russia has just confirmed it will pull its troops out of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson – which sits in a region of the same name that Moscow illegally annexed, and represents another humiliating setback for Vladamir Putin.
The embarrassing move is yet another indicator that the eight month-old war is not going to plan for Russia.
Here’s what you need to know.
What just happened?
Russia’s commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, announced on Wednesday that, due to delays with supplying the city, Russian troops would have to withdraw from Kherson.
Notably, Russian president Putin did not take part in the event when it was announced on Russian state TV – marking a stark contrast to the Putin-fronted celebrations in Moscow’s Red Square last month when declaring his annexation of Ukrainian territory.
The city and parts of the surrounding region were seized in the opening days of the conflict as Russian troops pushed their attack north from Crimea, the area illegally annexed by the Kremlin in 2014.
⚡️BREAKING: Russian troops ordered to leave Kherson.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu approved the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson, according to Russian military command.
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) November 9, 2022
Was this expected?
It has been Ukraine’s goal to push Russia off Ukrainian land, although perhaps a proactive withdrawal had not been expected just yet.
Ukraine’s offensive has slowed recently, but not stopped – as president Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted on Monday, Kyiv has been gradually making progress in recent weeks.
Ukrainian forces have started to close in around the city, while bombarding any bridges across the Dnipro river with missiles to try to cut Russian supply lines to the city.
Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-backed deputy civilian administration of Kherson, actually predicted last week before that Russian forces may have to retreat from the western side of the Dnipro.
The announcement that troops were pulling out of Kherson came shortly after it was confirmed that Stremousov had been killed in a road traffic accident on Wednesday.
But, amid previous claims that Russia might start to pull out of Kherson, Ukraine speculated that it was a ruse and that thousands of troops were still defending the city – despite publicly evacuating 70,000 civilians.
The Institute for the Study of War also suggested that the Russian soldiers were still preparing defensive positions within Kherson.
Why does it matter, strategically?
Kherson is a pivotal city for control because of its strategic position.
It is on the banks of the Dnipro river, near the Black Sea, and close to the Crimea peninsula.
This means it becomes the ideal bridge between the rest of Ukraine and what Moscow views as already conquered territory.
Equally, Kherson is important to Ukraine because it would take them one step closer to reclaiming Crimea, as Kyiv has repeatedly promised to do throughout the last eight months.
The Dnipro river also travels through the middle of Ukraine, meaning it gives an advantage to whichever side controls it.
No matter how Russia spins it, the retreat from Kherson — the biggest city and only regional capital captured and occupied after the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine — is a huge military failure for Putin. https://t.co/eIsSXPzJxP
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) November 9, 2022
Does it have a symbolic meaning too?
Yes – as the only major regional capital Russia has seized since it launched its invasion back in February, losing it would be a clear sign of Putin’s failing war aims.
Russian forces already lost 6,000 square-kilometres of territory to the Ukrainian forces amid their successful counteroffensive which Kyiv launched at the end of August.
Moscow also annexed the city and declared it Russian territory after holding a sham referendum in the area, and claiming the locals backed joining Moscow.
It was just one of four regions he tried to reclaim as the Kremlin’s land at the end of September.
What will happen next?
While Kherson appears to be the latest gain for Ukraine on the battlefield, and support from the international community continues, there’s little sign the war is edging towards a conclusion.
Heavy fighting and shelling continues elsewhere – Ukrainian and Russian forces clashed overnight over Snihurivka, a town about 30 miles north of the southern city of Kherson – and widespread Russian strikes on Ukraine’s energy system go on, with two cities not far from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, were shelled overnight.
But it’s clear Russia’s goal of a complete takeover of Ukraine is failing badly, and the economic pressures threatening Western support – notably high energy prices – are easing. Ukraine has said it will not countenance peace talks until Russia’s complete withdrawal, suggesting the grinding battle will only come to an end with more Kherson-style retreats.
The other big factor is the looming harsh winter, which won’t halt fighting but will change the dynamics once more.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.