Russian forces in Ukraine could be planning a "major withdrawal" from Kherson after the recently appointed commander of the invasion admitted troops faced a "difficult situation" in the region.
An operational commander sharing such a negative outlook of the so-called "special military operation" is "highly unusual", according to an update on Thursday by the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD).
"It likely indicates that the Russian authorities are seriously considering a major withdrawal of their forces from the area west of the Dnipro river," the MoD said.
In his first televised interview since his appointment earlier this month, General Sergei Surovikin said the situation on the ground was "tense", as the Ukrainian military "continually attempts to attack" occupied positions.
He told Russian state TV on Tuesday that Moscow's forces will "above all, ensure the safe evacuation of the population" in the southern city of Kherson – signalling the likelihood of more bitter fighting hitting the streets.
The MoD says a key challenge faced by Vladimir Putin's forces would be extracting its troops and equipment across the 1,000-mile Dnipro river in good order given that all the permanent bridges in the area are severely damaged.
For this reason, Russia would have to rely on a temporary barge bridge it constructed near Kherson in recent days, and military pontoon ferry units, in order to escape the region.
Kherson is the only regional capital Putin's forces have managed to capture since their invasion of Ukraine eight months ago.
It is strategically important however, as it controls the mouth of the Dnipro and the land route to the Crimea peninsula, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014.
While Ukraine has remained tight lipped about its operations in the region, it appears to have tightened the noose around its enemy in the region, carrying out relentless attacks and inflicting heavy losses.
Russian state TV has further prepared viewers for the possibility of Russian withdrawal, broadcasting an interview with war correspondent and Kremlin mouthpiece Alexander Kots, who warned Russian soldiers are outnumbered four to one in some areas.
Kots said: "The civilian population is being relocated out of the city to minimise the casualties among civilians.
"Right now, it's important for us to endure. I don't want to give anyone any illusions, but we'll have to persevere, gritting our teeth, through November and I'm afraid part of December."
Footage of people fleeing by boat across the Dnipro river were broadcast by Russian state television, which portrayed the exodus as an attempt to evacuate civilians before it became a combat zone.
About 50,000 to 60,000 people would be moved out in the next six days, said Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed chief of Kherson.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was due to address an EU summit on Thursday, in which the 27 member states will discuss options for more support to Ukraine.
It follows a barrage of Russian attacks on Ukraine's power plants right before winter sets in.
Support packages could include energy equipment, helping restore power supply and long-term financing to rebuild.