Withdrawal from Kherson reinforces Russian weakness, Sunak and Zelensky say

Russia’s withdrawal from the only provincial Ukrainian capital it has captured would further demonstrate the weakness of Vladimir Putin’s military offensive, Rishi Sunak said.

In a call on Thursday morning with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Prime Minister expressed careful optimism over Moscow’s troops being forced to flee Kherson.

They both agreed it is necessary to “exercise caution until the Ukrainian flag was raised over the city”, according to Downing Street’s account of the talk.

Elsewhere, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said exiting the southern city would be a “significant psychological blow” for Russian troops, but warned “we will believe it when we see it”.

Mr Zelensky said they “agreed positions” ahead of next week’s G20 summit in Bali, with No 10 suggesting Mr Sunak could use the summit to “confront” Russian officials with allies.

Kyiv has expressed scepticism at Russia’s admission of a retreat, warning it could be plotting to lure Ukrainian troops into an ambush around the industrial port city.

But it has accepted the Kremlin has little alternative but to flee because its logistical routes and supply lines have been severely disrupted.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The leaders agreed that any Russian withdrawal from the occupied city of Kherson would demonstrate strong progress for the Ukrainian forces and reinforce the weakness of Russia’s military offensive, but it was right to continue to exercise caution until the Ukrainian flag was raised over the city.

“The Prime Minister praised the bravery of the Ukrainian armed forces and reiterated the UK’s unwavering military, economic and political support.”

Kherson was captured by Moscow’s troops soon after their latest invasion began in February, but their withdrawal would mark one of Russia’s worst setbacks and a major victory for Kyiv.

Mr Sunak expressed “horror” at Russia’s drone strikes on civilian areas and reiterated the UK’s latest military support package, including 1,000 surface-to-air missiles and more than 25,000 extreme cold winter kits for troops.

The pair also discussed how Russia should be prevented from blocking vital supplies of Ukrainian grain and fertiliser amid fresh concerns over the deal to secure safe passage of shipments.

Mr Zelensky tweeted: “We discussed the multifaceted defence support for Ukraine and assistance in enduring the winter period.

“We also spoke in favour of the continuation of the “grain deal” and agreed positions on the eve of important international events.”

Mr Wallace, in an Edinburgh speech at a meeting of allies in the Joint Expeditionary Force grouping, questioned what the “tens of thousands of deaths” were for following the fails in Russia’s objectives.

“It must be quite a significant psychological blow that the one objective they did manage to capture, they have announced their intention to leave,” he said.

“Of course this is Russia, so we haven’t yet seen them leave en masse.

“We will believe it when we see it and I think we should all be cautious, as President Zelensky was, that there is still Russian tricks and all sorts of things.”