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Putin’s Ukraine Revenge: Is He Setting Up a Trap in Kherson?

Russian Artillery Firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian Artillery Firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ukraine seems to be marching towards victory in the Kherson region as Putin’s forces withdraw. But does the Russian military have a more slick idea brewing? 

Russian troops in civilian clothing are lingering in Kherson despite being ordered to withdraw, according to reports, as Ukrainian officials express concerns that the retreat could be part of a ploy to lure Ukraine’s forces into a trap.

“You can see them on the streets even if they wear civilian clothes,” a 50-year-old man identified as Volodymyr told the New York Times. Iryna, 42, Volodymyr’s wife, told the Times, “There are still many Russians — some of them wear civilian clothes,” adding, “They walk with their heads bent down, and you can’t see anyone’s eyes.” Volodymyr and Iryna’s last names were withheld for their safety, the Times said.

Their comments came a day after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the top commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, announced the withdraw in a theatrical appearance on television. Shortly after, a woman in Kherson told BBC News, “I’ve seen the announcement and I’m really surprised.”

The woman, who requested to remain anonymous, added, “Of course, I hope things are going to get better, but during these eight months of occupation I learnt not to believe a word the Russians say. They lie so much about everything.”

“I really hope they don’t lie,” she went on to say, “and that they don’t make traps for our Ukrainian army.” She told BBC that she could see pro-Russian fighters from Chechnya moving around the city, many in civilian clothes.

Russia’s announced retreat from Kherson, the first major city and the only regional capital it captured in Ukraine since invading, marked one of the most humiliating moments in the war thus far for Moscow. A former advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has distanced himself from the withdraw, likened the retreat to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on Thursday warned that Russia wants to turn Kherson into a “city of death” by mining “everything they can” on their way out. Ukraine’s military earlier this week warned that Russian troops in plain clothes were being moved into homes in Kherson to prepare for street fighting. Russia relocated thousands of Ukrainian civilians from the city as Ukrainian forces gradually advanced.

Military analysts have said that some occupation forces are likely to remain in place to provide cover for the removal of rearguard troops and material across the Dnipro river, but it’s harder to explain the reports of them in civilian clothes. It could be another sign of the disciplinary breakdown of battle-scarred Russian occupiers or an effort to ambush advancing Ukrainian liberators in what would likely be suicidal attacks.

Russia has a history of employing deception in warfare. In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, it initially sent in masked troops in unmarked uniforms. Putin at the time claimed that these troops — referred to as the “little green men” — were “local self-defense forces.” The Russian leader later acknowledged that the mysterious armed men were indeed Russian troops.

That said, US Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday that “we’re seeing the beginnings” of the Russian withdrawal from Kherson.

Additionally, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assesses that the Russian withdrawal is “unlikely to be a trap meant to lure Ukrainian troops into costly combat near Kherson City, as some Ukrainian and Western sources have suggested.”

“Russian commanders will certainly attempt to slow Ukrainian advances to maintain an orderly withdrawal, and some forces may remain to delay Ukrainian troops in Kherson City itself — but this fighting will be a means to the end of withdrawing as many Russian units as possible in good order,” ISW added.

John Haltiwanger is a senior politics reporter at Business Insider. He reports on all things politics with a particular focus on national security and foreign policy. John has a BA in History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and an MSc in International Relations from the University of Glasgow. This first appeared in Insider. 

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John Haltiwanger is a senior politics reporter at Business Insider. He reports on all things politics with a particular focus on national security and foreign policy.