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Russia says it's withdrawing from the key city of Kherson, but Ukraine is skeptical

The Ukrainian  artillery battery of the 59th Mechanized Brigade fires a howitzer at points controlled by Russian troops in Kherson Oblast, Ukraine on Saturday.
Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Ukrainian artillery battery of the 59th Mechanized Brigade fires a howitzer at points controlled by Russian troops in Kherson Oblast, Ukraine on Saturday.

Updated November 9, 2022 at 6:54 PM ET

DNIPRO, Ukraine, and MOSCOW — Russia announced a troop withdrawal from the key Ukrainian city of Kherson on Wednesday, in what would be a major blow to President Vladimir Putin's war effort. But the government in Kyiv was skeptical of the move.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday he ordered troops to retreat from Kherson to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River on the recommendation of the commander of Russia's forces in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin.

"The decision to defend on the left bank of the Dnipro is not easy, but at the same time we will save the lives of our military personnel and the combat capability of our forces," Surovikin said in televised remarks as he presented a report on the Russian military campaign to Shoigu.

The announcement drew skepticism from Ukraine's government, which has previously suggested Russia could pretend to pull out of Kherson to lure Ukrainian forces into battle.

"We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight," Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter following Wednesday's announcement from Moscow, slamming Russia's "staged TV statements."

Later in the day, President Biden told reporters that Moscow's withdrawal order was "evidence of the fact that they have some real problems with the Russian military."

Ukrainian forces have been steadily advancing on the city. Kherson was the only regional capital seized by Russian forces after the February invasion. At the time, the Kremlin insisted Russia was in Kherson "forever."

The loss of Kherson follows a string of other military defeats and retreats by Russia in eastern Ukraine. The city is the capital of the Kherson region, one of four Ukrainian territories that Moscow officially claimed to have annexed and incorporated into the Russian Federation on Sept. 30.

Military analysts and Ukrainian intelligence officials have been warning that a battle for Kherson city would devolve into bloody urban warfare if Russia decided to try to defend the port at the base of the Dnipro River.

For weeks, Moscow-installed administrators in Kherson have repeatedly called on people to evacuate the city to the east bank of the Dnipro, saying a major Ukrainian assault was imminent. The evacuations moved civilians deeper into Russian-controlled territory. Some were bused to Crimea. Others were offered resettlement in the interior of Russia. There were reports of Russian troops looting offices and shops as they retreated.

Ukrainian forces had systematically blown up key bridges in and around Kherson, cutting off potential escape routes for Russian troops.

Jason Beaubien reported from Dnipro, Ukraine. Charles Maynes reported from Moscow.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.