The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, has ordered the country’s troops to leave an area including Ukraine’s city of Kherson, the only regional capital captured by Moscow since the February invasion.
A Ukrainian victory in in the city, one of the main objectives of Kyiv’s southern offensive, would be widely seen as a significant blow to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, only weeks after a high-profile ceremony in Moscow in which he announced the “forever” annexation of the Kherson region, along with three others.
As details of Russian troop movements remained opaque, some Ukrainian senior officials cautioned against celebrating too soon until a fuller picture of the situation on the ground became clear.
It was unclear how many Russian troops remained on the west bank of the Dnipro and in Kherson city itself, or how complicated it would be to make a full retreat.
All the evidence, however, pointed to a new humiliating defeat for Moscow, as Shoigu and the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, commanded Russian troops to fall back across the Dnipro River, destroying bridges on its west bank to cover their withdrawal.
A Ukrainian liberation of the area would pose fresh military headaches for Russia’s military commanders, bringing some parts of the Russian-occupied Crimea within range of Ukrainian Himars rocket systems, as well as threatening Russian operations around Melitopol and Mariupol.
The order to retreat came as Ukrainian forces pressed their attack on Russian positions on the western side of the river, including around the key town of Snihurivka, and as a key Russian-installed official in Kherson was reported to have died in murky circumstances.
In televised comments, Gen Sergei Surovikin, overall commander of the war, said he had recommended the withdrawal of Russian troops from the west bank of the Dnipro River, citing logistical difficulties.
“Kherson cannot be fully supplied and function. Russia did everything possible to ensure the evacuation of the inhabitants of Kherson,” Surovikin told Shoigu.
“We will save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right [western] bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts,” Surovikin said.
While the move had been anticipated to prevent Russian forces being encircled by Ukraine on the western side of the river, the bald admission by Surovikin that Russian forces could not operate effectively comes despite recent efforts by the Kremlin to reinforce the Kherson front at the cost of the giving up large parts of Ukraine’s east.
It also marks a personal defeat for Surovikin, a notorious hardline air force officer, who was appointed the first overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine in October to turn around Russia’s failing war against Ukraine.
Defending Surovikin’s decision to withdraw, the head of the Wagner private military corporation and Ukraine war hawk, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said: “Of course, this is not a victorious step in this war, but it is important not to agonise, not succumb to paranoia, but to draw conclusions and work on our mistakes.
“Surovikin had to withdraw troops and save a thousand soldiers who are actually surrounded on enemy territory, which is completely cut off from supply routes. Who gave instructions to take this position and why is another question.
“The decision taken by Surovikin is not easy, but he acted like a man who is not afraid of responsibility. He did it in an organised manner, without fear, taking upon himself the full responsibility of decision-making.”
The announcement came a few hours after it was disclosed that Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-appointed deputy head of the Kherson region, had died in unclear circumstances with Russian media sources blaming a “car crash”.
Stremousov – a former anti-vaccination blogger – had become the hated face of Russia’s occupation of Kherson, posting videos online, including a bizarre poetry rendition and hosting press conferences for pro-Russian media.
According to local media reports, the crash happened near Henichesk, on the Sea of Azov, the seaside town used as the headquarters of the Russian occupation administration since it fled Kherson.
The Tass news agency said the press service for the head of the region had confirmed Stremousov’s death.
In a video statement only hours before his death, Stremousov denounced what he called Ukrainian “Nazis” and said the Russian military was in “full control” of the situation in the south.
Alexander Dugin, a far-right nationalist figure in Russia whose daughter was killed earlier this year in a car bomb, said: “Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the administration of the Kherson region, has died. A true hero. Kherson must be defended at all costs. Kherson is what keeps Russia in power today.”
In recent weeks, Russia been transporting civilians away from Kherson, amid reports this week that some private ferries used by civilians for evacuation have also been sunk.
In the hours before the announcement of the Russian withdrawal, pro-Russian journalists and analysts had painted an increasingly gloomy picture.
Ahead of the announced retreat, Aleksandr Kots, a journalist with the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid who is in Kherson, said there was “no good news” there, suggesting that the announcement of withdrawal could come soon.
“We are waiting for an official announcement,” he wrote on his Telegram channel. Kots also posted several videos from Kherson that he said showed Russian flags removed from government buildings.
According to some accounts, the occupation administration has been relocated well to the south of the city.
Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser and political commentator, said that the decision to leave Kherson would have “catastrophic consequences”.
“In Russia, many fear that the decision to leave Kherson has already been made. It is the wrong decision. It could have catastrophic consequences for Russia.”
Ukrainian officials warned in recent days that claims that Russian forces were preparing to withdraw may be a ruse, suggesting that some Russian troops were disguising themselves as civilians.
The destruction of the bridges, however, suggested that Russian forces were preparing to abandon the positions that they occupied on western side of the Dnipro River.
Ukrainian officials and local residents said that at least four bridges had been blown up on Wednesday to slow the Ukrainian advance. Among these was the Dariivka Bridge, the only crossing across the Inhulets river in the Russian-occupied western-bank part of Kherson oblast.
The Inhulets divides the occupied area into two, with the city of Kherson in the western part and Beryslav in the east.
Images posted on social media also showed two bridges over the canal in Snihurivka had collapsed. Snihurivika has been a key Russian position, anchoring its defences outside Kherson.