Putin tells residents of Ukraine's contested Kherson region to leave
Kyiv accuses Moscow of forced deportations of civilians out of Russian-occupied territory, which Russia denies
Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly endorsed the evacuation of civilians from parts of Ukraine's southern Kherson region on Friday, the latest sign of Russia's retreat in one of the most bitterly contested areas in Ukraine.
"Now, of course, those who live in Kherson should be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions, because the civilian population should not suffer," Putin told pro-Kremlin activists as he marked Russia's Day of National Unity.
Moscow has already been ferrying people out of an area it controls in Kherson on the west bank of the Dnipro River, and this week announced that the evacuation zone would also include a 15-kilometre buffer area on the east bank. But the comments appear to be the first time Putin has endorsed the evacuations personally.
Russia says it has been taking residents to safety from the path of a Ukrainian advance. Kyiv says the measures have included forced deportations of civilians out of Russian-occupied territory, a war crime, which Russia denies.
Putin's comments come amid signs Russia could be preparing to abandon its military foothold on the Dnipro River's west bank, including Kherson's regional capital — potentially one of the biggest Russian retreats of the war.
On Thursday, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-installed occupation administration in Kherson, said Russia was likely to withdraw its troops from the west bank. In later remarks, he was more equivocal, saying he hoped there would be no retreat but "we have to take some very difficult decisions."
Late on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the fiercest fighting over the last week had taken place around Bakhmut and Soledar, in the eastern Donetsk region, about 500 kilometres northeast of Kherson.
"We are holding our positions in these and a few other areas in the Donetsk region," he said in a video address, accusing Russia of insane stubbornness for sending "tens or hundreds of thousands more people to the meat grinder."
During the day, Ukrainian forces had downed eight Iranian drones and two Russian missiles, Zelenskyy said.
Ukrainian soldiers brace for fierce fight
Pictures have circulated on the internet showing the main administration building in Kherson city with Russia's flag no longer flying atop it. Kyiv has been wary, saying the signs of a Russian pullout could be deception to lure its troops into a trap.
Ukrainian soldiers in a mechanized infantry company dug in on a tree line at the front west of Kherson city were confident the Russians would eventually retreat, but would fight as they fall back, auguring a potentially bloody battle for the city.
The company's deputy commander, identified only as Vitalyi, said recent moves by the Russians to beef up their defences appeared aimed at protecting a withdrawal, rather than holding on to Kherson.
"They have dug into every field," said Vitalyi, 48, as his men took advantage of the unusually mild weather to improve bunkers and clean their weapons amid thumps of intermittent artillery fire.
"They have large amounts of tanks and people, but I don't think they have a realistic plan to stay more than one or two weeks," he said.
One of his soldiers, Vladyslav, 27, said he expected that the Russians "will fight."
"We will fight as well. We have nowhere else to go. This is our home. This is our land."
The regional capital, which is located on the west bank at the mouth of the Dnipro, is the only big city Russia has captured intact since its invasion in February. Its loss for Russian forces would be one of the severest blows of the war.
The surrounding province controls land access to Russian-occupied Crimea, and securing it was one of the few successes of an otherwise disastrous Russian campaign.
U.S. pledges $400M in additional security aid
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said he "certainly" believed Ukrainian forces could retake the Russian-held area on the west bank, in perhaps his most optimistic comments on the counter-offensive to date.
"Most importantly, the Ukrainians believe they have the capability to do that. We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to take back their sovereign territory."
The Pentagon later announced $400 million US worth of additional security assistance, including HAWK air defences against Russian drones and cruise missiles. It brought the amount of U.S. military aid sent to Kyiv to more than $18.2 billion US since the invasion.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some Russian military commanders had already moved across the river to the east, effectively abandoning the troops under their command on the opposite bank.
"We would assess that in Kherson, it's likely that most echelons of command have withdrawn now across the river to the east, leaving pretty demoralized and often in some cases leaderless troops to face off Ukrainians on the other side," the official said.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed head of the occupied province, has said it was evacuating civilians to facilitate "a layered defence" in order to repel Ukrainian attacks.
G7 plotting how to help Ukraine's reconstruction
Meanwhile, top diplomats from the G7 countries have agreed on the need for a co-ordination mechanism to help Ukraine repair and defend its critical energy and infrastructure from Russia's attacks, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Friday.
G7 countries gathered in the western German city of Muenster this week with Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Iran's deepening military alignment with Moscow over the war as well as China's growing assertiveness topping the agenda.
The countries also discussed the state of the battlefield to figure out which weapons to provide to Kyiv, although this time the focus was more on assistance that would allow Ukraine to defend itself from the intensifying Russian attacks on its energy and water infrastructure, the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.
"They discussed what needs Ukraine was facing as it heads into the winter and agreed that there needed to be a G7 co-ordinating mechanism to help Ukraine repair, restore and defend its critical energy and water infrastructure," the official told reporters.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba joined the G7 discussion virtually.
Over the past few weeks, Russia has launched waves of missile and drone strikes targeting Ukraine's energy infrastructure. Kyiv says they have damaged up to 40 per cent of the power system and Ukrainian authorities warned that residents may face hours of blackouts due to the limited supplies.
Moscow has acknowledged targeting energy infrastructure but denies targeting civilians in what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine to eliminate dangerous nationalists and protect Russian-speakers.
In other developments:
- Residents in Kyiv on Friday snapped up a new postage stamp commemorating a blast last month that damaged a major bridge linking Russia to Crimea. Russia blamed Ukraine, but Kyiv has not claimed responsibility. The stamps show a man and a woman standing on the broken bridge in a pose echoing a famous scene from the movie Titanic, as smoke billows behind them.
- The Ukrainian Armed Forces said "the functioning of grain corridors continues" according to plan Friday, after Russia agreed Wednesday to rejoin a wartime agreement brokered by the United Nations and Turkey allowing Ukrainian grain to be shipped to world markets through the Black Sea. Moscow had suspended its participation in the grain deal over the weekend, citing an alleged drone attack against its Black Sea fleet in Crimea.
- Putin signed a law Friday permitting the military mobilization of those with expunged or outstanding convictions for certain serious crimes, including those who have recently served time for murder, robbery and drug trafficking. When Russia announced the mobilization drive in September, protests erupted in several regions and tens of thousands of Russians fled the country.