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Putin Might Have a New Plan to Trap Ukraine’s Military

Ukraine
Ukrainian Army Tank Firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia may have a new way to try and gain momentum in its war against Ukraine: setting up a trap in the city of Kherson that some think Moscow was retreating from.

Ukrainian strategists are wary of Russian signals that its army is preparing to withdraw from the city of Kherson, fearing an ambush.

Western intelligence — and some statements from Russia — have noted moves suggesting that Russia may be about to abandon the city, a strategic and symbolic prize should Ukraine reclaim it.

But Ukraine suspects that it’s a trap designed to bolster Russian positions and to spring street-level warfare.

On Thursday, images of the Kherson Oblast administrative building were shared on social media, showing the Russian flag had been taken away.

One Russian media outlet claimed that the region’s occupying government had moved to Henichesk, a city some 125 miles to the east.

Kirill Stremousov, the installed head of the regional occupation, also told Russian media that day that Russian forces were about to retreat over the Dnipro river, per a translation by the US think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

An unnamed Western official also said on Thursday that Russian plans to leave the city were “well advanced,” as Politico reported.

Kherson is key to President Vladimir Putin’s offensive in Ukraine and was captured in the earliest days of the war. Its wider region sits in the path between Russian-controlled Crimea and the trading port city of Odesa, on the Black Sea.

Ukraine has been making slow but steady advances north of the Dnipro river, retaking a swathe of settlements in the northeast of Kherson region in early October.

An ISW assessment mid-October said that Russia was withdrawing many elite troops and medics, indicating pressure on the areas around the city.

At that time, Russian forces organized for thousands of civilians to be forcibly evacuated from the city itself, while the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said that “the enemy is preparing Kherson for street battles.”

‘Pure theater’

Despite all signals that Russia is headed for a retreat, Ukrainian intelligence has been skeptical. In a late October interview with Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, President Volodymyr Zelenkyy called the moves “pure theater.”

“I don’t see Russians beating a hasty retreat from Kherson,” he told the paper. “It’s a ruse. It’s a strategic retreat. They’re not ready to abandon the region, even though they run the risk of being encircled by our troops.”

Russian Tanks in Ukraine

Russian Tanks in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

T-90M

T-90M from Russian Military in Ukraine.

T-62

T-62 tanks deployed in Ukraine on September 21, 2022. Image Credit: Social Media/Twitter Screengrab.

His remarks were echoed by Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, according to Reuters.

“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, per the news agency.

Ukraine’s state-run Center for Countering Disinformation said Thursday that “the persistent attempt by Russian propagandists to promote the topic of “Kherson surrender” looks more like an information sabotage and a pursuit to mislead the Ukrainian military leadership.”

The ISW’s assessment as of Thursday also struck a warning note, saying that Russian troop movements didn’t match the picture of full preparations to leave, noting that some elite units continue to fight west of the river.

It also noted that Stremousov, who had talked of troops leaving, later modified his comments and suggested there may be fighting in the city in coming weeks.

“While there’s some commotion and movement going on, it’s not decisive,” Kateryna Stepanenko, an ISW Russia analyst, told The Hill. “It doesn’t appear that Russians have at this moment entirely given up Kherson city.”

Mia Jankowicz is a news reporter at Insider’s London office (where this first appeared). She previously covered Brexit for The New European and has contributed stories to The Guardian, The New Statesman, Politics.co.uk, and Mic.com, as well as several local newspapers. A longtime culture writer, she has published reviews, opinion, and features to a wide range of art publications, with a focus on art from both the UK and the Middle East. She won the Frieze Writers’ Prize in 2007.

Written By

Mia Jankowicz is a news reporter at Insider's London office.