Vladimir Putin has “well advanced” plans to order a retreat from Kherson, the largest city held by Russian forces in Ukraine, in another major setback for his invasion, western officials said on Thursday.
His generals are believed to have decided that the city is “not worth fighting for,“ with Russian forces having already suffered heavy losses as they are hit by Ukrainian counter-offensives in the south of the country and north east.
However, the Russian president is expected to seek to portray the withdrawal of troops, to the east side of the Dnipro River, as an evacuation.
Russia’s “command elements” in the Kherson area are already said to have retreated across the river where defences have been built up.
A western official said: “We are confident in our previous warnings about the prospect of Russian withdrawal from their Kherson bridgehead.
“Planning is almost certainly well advanced.”
Russian flags are reported to have already been taken down from municipal buildings and checkpoints in the southern city of Kherson.
The official added: “A large proportion of the civilian population has now moved east.
“Russia has highly likely prioritised a temporary bolstering of force in the area to cover the retreat.
“The retreat is going to be presented as an evacuation. So it won’t be presented as a military retreat in that sense.”
Mr Putin’s generals are said to have the “intent” and “capability” to withdraw from Kherson, and to have set the “conditions” do to so, though, Russia may still decide not to follow through with such a plan.
Criticising “failures in Russian leadership,” the official added: “In Kherson, it’s likely that most echelons of command have now withdrawn across the river, leaving demoralised and leaderless men to face Ukrainian assaults.
“A substantial proportion of these men are recently mobilised reservists.
“It’s increasingly apparent that they are often woefully equipped and prepared.”
Ukrainian forces were said to be making “very slow going” in their progress towards Kherson, with some “instances” of seizing territory more quickly.
Fighting through the streets of the city would also be “extremely challenging”.
However, the official stressed: “This is more about Russians making longer term strategic decisions about where is best to defend in order to be effective, maintain their own munitions supplies, maintain their troop levels and set themselves for the winter.
“I think in their judgement, they have decided that Kherson city is not worth fighting for, that that natural defensive barrier of the river is extremely valuable to them.”
A senior Russian-installed occupation official said Russian forces were likely to abandon their foothold on the west bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson area.
Ukrainian officials remained cautious about signs that Russia was abandoning the area, and there was silence from higher-ups in Moscow over the announcement of what would amount to one of Russia's most humiliating retreats since the invasion.
"Most likely our units, our soldiers, will leave for the left (eastern) bank," Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy civilian administrator of the Kherson region, said in an interview with Solovyov Live, a pro-Kremlin online media outlet.
The area includes Kherson city, capital of the region of the same name, and the only major city Russia had captured intact since its invasion in February.
It also includes one side of a huge dam across the Dnipro which controls the water supply to irrigate Crimea, the peninsula Russia has occupied since 2014.
Previously, Russia had staunchly denied that its forces were planning to withdraw from the area, which Mr Putin claimed to have annexed to Russia at the end of September.
Speculation swirled on Thursday over whether Russia was indeed pulling out, after photos circulated on the internet showing the main administrative building in Kherson city with Russia's flag no longer flying atop it.
Russia has fought for months to hang on to the pocket of land it holds on the west bank at the mouth of the river that bisects Ukraine.
Moscow had sent tens of thousands of troops to reinforce the area, one of its biggest battlefield priorities.
Ukraine has targetted the main river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply its huge force on the west bank.
Ukrainian troops have been advancing along the river since bursting through the Russian frontline there at the start of October, although their advance had slowed in recent days.
Russia had ordered civilians to evacuate from occupied areas on the west bank, and this week also ordered them out of a 15 km (nine mile) buffer zone on the east bank as well. Kyiv says those evacuation orders amount to forced deportation, a war crime.
Mr Stremousov urged civilians remaining in Kherson city to leave immediately, saying they were putting their lives in danger.
Ukraine maintains tight secrecy about the progress of its troops at the front in Kherson but has so far been publicly cautious about any suggestions that Russia is vacating positions there.
Natalia Humenyuk, head of the press centre for the Ukrainian military, said the removal of the Russian flag from atop the administration building in Kherson could be a Russian trap to lure Ukrainian troops into a reckless advance.
"This could be a manifestation of a particular provocation, in order to create the impression that the settlements are abandoned, that it is safe to enter them, while they are preparing for street battles," she said in televised comments.
Moscow declared at the end of September that it had annexed Ukraine's Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzia regions after staging so-called referendums rejected as bogus and illegal by Kyiv and the West.
As Mr Putin’s invasion stalls further, Russian General Colonel Alexander Lapin is also believed to have been sacked.
“He was the last man standing of the five operational level commanders on February 24 (when the invasion was launched),” stressed the western official.
“Again this highlights the Russian tendency to blame, scapegoat and fire rather than to rectify systemic problems.”
Mr Putin’s forces were said to be “critically short of munitions”.
Western capitals will watch for any “uptick” in criticism of Russia’s leadership if the retreat from Kherson takes place.