Signs of Russian Retreat Don’t Mean Ukraine’s Fight for Kherson Will Be Easy

VELYKE ARTAKOVE, Ukraine—Russian forces in the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Kherson appear to be laying the groundwork for a withdrawal, but Ukrainian officials warn that their enemy could be seeking to suck precious armored units into debilitating urban combat.

As Ukraine’s forces press toward Kherson, one of the biggest prizes Russia seized after invading in February, Moscow’s military wants to sap their strength while avoiding the kind of chaotic withdrawal it recently carried out in the northeast.

The question is how long Moscow will seek to hold Kherson. There are signs Russian forces are preparing to leave the city, moving residents and personnel onto the far bank of the Dnipro River, replacing elite forces with mobilized troops, and abandoning some checkpoints around the city and its airport while digging in elsewhere.

Signaling that heavy fighting might lie ahead, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Friday for civilians to be evacuated from Kherson.

“They’re building fortifications in a hurry,” said Natalia Humenyuk, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s southern command. “We’re sure they’re going to fight for Kherson.”

A Western official said Russian planning for a withdrawal was well advanced and that Moscow had likely given priority to a temporary bolstering of forces in the area to cover the retreat. The bulk of Russian commanders had already withdrawn across the Dnipro, the official said, and Russia was seeking to reinforce a new defensive line on the eastern bank.

“They’ve probably made a strategic decision to withdraw over time,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at defense-research organization CNA. “They’re likely trying to make the seizure of Kherson costly for the Ukrainian armed forces.”

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Russia, Ukraine, War