Russia’s military said on Friday it had completed its withdrawal from Kherson, a lightning-fast retreat of tens of thousands of troops across the Dnipro river in the south of Ukraine.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies, on Wednesday ordered troops to leave Kherson in a pullout that allows Ukrainian forces to move closer to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Russia’s defence ministry said all Russian forces and equipment had been transferred to the eastern bank of the Dnipro. It said the withdrawal was completed by 5 a.m. Moscow time (0200 GMT) on Friday.
“The transfer of Russian troop units to the left bank of the Dnipro river has been completed,” the defence ministry said in a statement.
“Not a single unit of military equipment or weapons have been left on the right (western) bank. All Russian servicemen crossed to the left bank,” it added. Russia, it said, had not suffered any loss of personnel or equipment during the withdrawal.
Reuters could not immediately verify the status of the retreat but if true, the speed of the move, involving up to 30,000 men, would be significantly faster than either the United States or Ukraine expected.
The top US general said on Wednesday he estimated that Russia had 20,000-30,000 troops to move across the river, and the pullout could take “days and perhaps even weeks”.
Ukraine’s defence minister told Reuters in an interview on Thursday he expected the withdrawal to take at least a week.
Abandoning an occupied Ukrainian city that was founded by Empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century amounts to a humiliating defeat for Russia after years of touting its post-Soviet military clout.
Both the choreography and tone of the retreat, though, contrasted sharply with the much more chaotic defeats of the Russian army in Ukraine’s northeast Kharkiv region in September, six months into Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
This time, General Sergei Surovikin, the commander in chief of Russian forces, said it was futile to waste more Russian blood on Kherson.
Russian state television showed what it said was the Antonivskiy bridge, the only nearby road crossing from Kherson to the Russian-controlled eastern bank of the Dnipro River. Russian military bloggers said it was probably blown up as Russian troops withdrew.
Pictures of the bridge showed a man standing with a bike before a missing section.
Pro-Russian war bloggers reported late on Thursday that Russian forces crossing the river were coming under heavy fire from Ukrainian forces. The defence ministry said Ukrainian forces had struck Dnipro River crossings five times overnight with US-supplied HIMARS rocket systems.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Russia remained committed to achieving the goals of what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, and said Moscow still viewed the Kherson region as “part of Russia.”
Peskov said the decision to retreat was taken by the defence ministry. Asked by reporters if it was humiliating for Putin, Peskov said: “No.”
Putin proclaimed Kherson – and three other regions of Ukraine – as part of Russia in a triumphal ceremony in the Kremlin on September 30. Ukraine, its Western allies and an overwhelming majority of countries at the UN General Assembly have condemned the declared annexations as illegal.
The Russian defence ministry said it had adopted “defensive lines and positions” on the eastern bank of the river, which Moscow hopes it will be able to better supply and defend.