Ukrainians advance, front falls silent after Russia orders retreat


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FRONTLINE NORTH OF KHERSON — Ukrainian troops pushed forward and a battle-scarred stretch of the front fell silent on Thursday, after Moscow ordered one of the war’s biggest retreats, though Kyiv warned that fleeing Russians could still turn Kherson into a “city of death.”

A small group of Ukrainian soldiers was shown on Ukraine’s state TV being greeted by joyous residents in the center of the village of Snihurivka around 55 km (35 miles) north of Kherson city, with a Ukrainian flag fluttering above the square behind them. Reuters verified the location of the video.

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“Today, on Nov. 10, 2022, Snihurivka was liberated by the forces of the 131st Separate Intelligence Battalion. Glory to Ukraine!” a commander declared as dozens of locals applauded, cheered and filmed the soldiers on their phones.

A few kilometers (miles) away, in a devastated frontline village reached by Reuters in an area already held by Ukrainian forces, the guns had fallen silent for what residents said was the first quiet night since the war began.

“It’s like there was no war,” said Nadiia Nizarenko, 85, her face lit by a bulb powered by a car battery in the cramped apartment that she, her daughter and son-in-law had refused to abandon as fighting had raged daily around them. “We hope the silence means the Russians are leaving.”

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Ukraine’s army chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said Ukrainian troops had advanced 7 km in the past 24 hours and had recaptured 12 settlements in the south, although he would not confirm whether Russia was indeed pulling out as announced.

“We continue to conduct the offensive operation in line with our plan,” he wrote in a post on Telegram.

The frontline villagers were leery of Moscow’s intentions. The Russians could be preparing a trap, said Nizarenko’s daughter, Svitlana Lischeniuk, 63, as she unloaded milk cans and jugs filled with well water from a trailer hitched to the family car.

Still, there was joy. Petro Lupan, a volunteer distributing bread to residents, told Reuters he could not find words to express his feelings after he learned of the recapture of Snihurivka from a friend reached by phone there.

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If Russia implements its withdrawal from an area that President Vladimir Putin proclaimed annexed a month ago, it would be its biggest retreat since its forces were driven back from the outskirts of Kyiv in March, and a clear shift in the momentum of the nine-month-old war.

Moscow ordered its troops on Wednesday to withdraw from the entire Russian-held pocket on the west bank of the Dnipro River, including Kherson city, the only regional capital Russia had captured in nine months of war.

Ukrainian officials have so far mostly been wary in public, warning that Russians may still be planning to sow destruction on their way out.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Thursday Russia wanted to turn Kherson into a “city of death,” mining everything from apartments to sewers and planning to shell the city from the other side of the river.

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“This is what (the) ‘Russian world’ looks like: came, robbed, celebrated, killed ‘witnesses’, left ruins and left,” he wrote on Twitter.

Russia denies it abuses civilians despite bombarding residential areas throughout the conflict. It has evacuated thousands of civilians from the Kherson area in recent weeks in what Ukraine says included illegal forced deportations.

At the unusually quiet front line, fog had settled in overnight, light snow fell and the ground was coated with frost. Ukrainian troops manning checkpoints were buttoned up against the cold.

Zelenskiy himself mentioned Kherson just once in his daily overnight television address. Ukrainian forces were strengthening their positions “step by step” in the south, he said. “The enemy will make no gifts to us.”

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Kyiv’s public wariness may in part reflect its urge to keep its own operations secret as it plans to inflict as much harm as possible on the thousands of Russian troops likely to need to be transferred across the river by ferry.

Asked about Kherson in an interview with CNN aired on Thursday, Zelenskiy said he could not give details, because “I really want to have an unpleasant surprise for the enemy and not something that they’re prepared for.”

Russian state media and pro-Kremlin war hawks defended the withdrawal as a necessary move while acknowledging a heavy blow.

“I know for sure that this decision was not easy for anyone. Not for those who took it, nor for those of us who understood it would be so but still prayed it wouldn’t happen,” said Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, Russia’s international propaganda channel.

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The retreat would leave Moscow with only limited gains to show for a “special military operation” that made it a pariah in the West and killed tens of thousands of its soldiers.

Russian forces are still holding on to other gains in the south, including a vital land route connecting Russia to the Crimea peninsula it seized in 2014, and cities in the east that they mostly obliterated while capturing them.

Victory in Kherson may quiet some Western voices calling for Kyiv to negotiate a peace that would cede territory.

“This is a validation of Ukraine’s military strategy and the approach taken by its senior leadership. They are succeeding and the Russians know it,” tweeted Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general.

“Now is NOT the time to force Ukraine into negotiations. The Russians might be weakened but they are not giving up on their territorial aspirations. They will have to be beaten on the battlefield and pushed out of Ukraine.”

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Heavens)



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