Moscow reportedly withdrew its military officers from the southern city of Kherson over the weekend ahead of an expected counterattack by Ukrainian troops, while civilians were urged to flee the area amid signs Russian fighters may be preparing for brutal urban combat.
The Institute for Study of War, a leading military think tank, said Sunday that Russian leadership has withdrawn its officers from Kherson, a key city in southern Ukraine along the Dnipro River.
The city and its surrounding villages have largely been under Russian control since the early weeks of the war in late February. Its recapture by Ukrainian troops would be both a strategic and symbolic victory for Kyiv, which has steadily retaken ground in eastern and southern Ukraine as part of a months-long coordinated counteroffensive aided by U.S.-made weapons.
Russian authorities in Kherson, installed shortly after the Russian occupation began, urged civilians to leave the city as soon as possible.
Citing Ukrainian defense officials, the Institute for Study of War over the weekend said that “some Russian elements are preparing Kherson City for urban combat, while other service members continue to flee the city via the ferry operating in the vicinity of the Antonivsky Bridge.”
With heavy fighting imminent, Western intelligence officials say that Russian forces have been scrambling to build new bridges around Kherson to help move troops and supplies in and out of the city quickly.
The British Ministry of Defense said over the weekend that Russian troops recently completed a new barge bridge across the Dnipro outside Kherson.
“Although the use of heavy barge bridges was almost certainly included in Soviet-era planning for operations in Europe, it is likely this is the first time the Russian military have needed to utilize this type of bridge for decades,” the ministry tweeted. “Using civilian barges likely provides Russia additional material and logistics benefits, having lost significant quantities of military bridging equipment and engineering personnel during its invasion.”
Kherson and its surrounding territory link Ukraine to the Crimean peninsula, which Russian troops forcibly annexed in 2015 and has become a key staging ground for Russian troops in their ongoing war in Ukraine.
The loss of Kherson would mark a major strategic defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his army, as their positions in Crimea would be more easily within range of Ukrainian strikes.
Kherson province is one of four provinces that Mr. Putin claims to have annexed into Russia, though virtually the entire world rejects those claims and still considers the territories to be part of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Russian troops over the weekend continued a massive drone-and-rocket attack campaign on Ukrainian energy infrastructure across the country.
With the aid of Iranian-made drones, Russian troops have targeted Ukrainian power-generation sites, water treatment plants and other facilities. The campaign is an effort by Russia to break the morale of Ukraine and to leave millions of Ukrainians without heat and hot water as winter approaches.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it won’t work.
“Russian propagandists are lying when they say that this terror against our infrastructure and people can somehow slow down the active actions of our military or create some difficulties for our defense,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in an address Saturday. “Ukrainians are united and know for sure that Russia has no chance of winning this war. Our defense forces are getting everything they need to defend the country and are pushing forward every day.”
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.