Russia has pulled occupation officials out of Kherson to counter the Ukrainian offensive

Mykolaiv, Ukraine

A veil of uncertainty has fallen on Ukraine’s southern front as a counteroffensive raises hopes of further Ukrainian gains and speculation grows about what Russia’s next move might be.

There are mixed signals about Russia’s plans for the key city of Kherson, which it has occupied since the start of the war. Some indications suggest that Moscow is ready for a fight, while others suggest that it is preparing to withdraw.

Over the past two weeks, Kherson’s Kremlin-backed administration has sent grim messages about its attempt to retake the Ukrainian city, transporting thousands of residents across the Dnipro River, deep into Russian territory. Ukraine has accused Russia of creating “hysteria” to force residents to leave.

Moscow is also beginning to reduce the footprint of its occupation in Kherson. Ukrainian officials say the Russians are moving wounded people, administrative services and financial institutions out of the city, and are sending more troops to reinforce their positions.

A man still living in the city said Russia was removing facilities for services such as passports and pensions, and that he had seen fewer people and soldiers on the streets in recent days.

“There was a rotation and new soldiers were brought in,” the man, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told CNN on Sunday. “Some soldiers were here for a while, they left and the new ones [ones] he came They are probably mobilized, conscripts. They don’t even know what city they are in.”

Ukraine’s military has seen similar moves by Russia.

“Their elite units and officers are moving from the west bank (of the Dnipro River), leaving only those who are mobilized and expendable,” Ukrainian army spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk said on national television on Sunday.

The start of the week was unusually quiet on the southern front. Russia fired two S-300 missiles into a residential neighborhood outside Mykolaiv on Saturday night, injuring five. But Sunday and Monday nights did not bring any major drone or missile attacks.

And on Tuesday, Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were preparing “defensive positions” on the east bank of the Dnipro – across the river from the city of Kherson – and leaving small “possible withdrawal” routes from the west bank.

“According to available information, the enemy is organizing defensive positions on the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in its daily operational update.

“Near the settlement of Hornostaivka, engineering and sapper units of the Russian occupying troops are laying mines along the coast, leaving small paths for their troops to retreat from the right (western) bank,” the message continued. CNN could not confirm the Ukrainian military’s claim.

All this has raised hopes among residents that Russia may be ready to pull out of the city and settle back in more defensible positions for the difficult winter months. Market vendors in the city have also begun demanding Ukrainian hryvnias, rejecting the occupiers’ rubles and preparing for release, residents told CNN.

But on Monday, the head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency poured cold water on the idea that Kherson’s liberation could be imminent, saying “now they are not preparing to leave, they are preparing to defend.”

Russia is bringing fresh troops to Kherson to fortify the city against any new Ukrainian offensive, Major General Kyrylo Budanov told Ukrainian media.

“They create the illusion that everything is gone,” Budanov said. “At the same time, on the contrary, they bring new military units there and prepare the streets of the city for defense.”

On Monday night, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine needed to prepare for “the most difficult winter in our history”.

A Ukrainian soldier checks a trench dug by Russian soldiers in a retaken area of ​​the Kherson region, October 12.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Kherson installation in Russia said in a post on Telegram on Monday that “an opportunity has arisen” for the men who remained in the city to join the territorial defense forces.

“Those who wanted to leave left,” the Kherson resident told CNN. “The (Ukrainian) people who stay here, they are united, they stick together, … they try to help each other.”

When the battle for Kherson might take place is unknown. Ukrainian forces have not made major advances toward the city since early October, when Zelensky said his troops had retaken about 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) in their push toward the city.

As in weeks, Russian leaders in Kherson declare that they will defend the city.

“Everything will be fine,” Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian region, told Telegram on Monday morning. “We will not surrender Kherson. The city will become a grave for many Ukrainians who forgot the lessons of history.’

The sense of comfort is heightened by Russia’s latest histrionics. Without providing evidence, Moscow has accused Kiev of planning to use a so-called dirty bomb. Western leaders have dismissed the accusation as a false flag operation that the Kremlin could use as a pretext to escalate the war.

Ukraine has also accused Russia of preparing to blow up a large dam at a hydroelectric power station upstream of Kherson. Crucially, the dam and its surroundings are controlled by Russia, and Zelensky said his government had information suggesting Russia had mined the structure. Although the flooding caused by the dam burst would expand Russia’s defense barrier if it were withdrawn, the disadvantages would far outweigh the strategic gains, Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief said. Russia, on the other hand, has accused Ukraine of planning to attack the dam.

“They will have a complete flood of the eastern edge of the Kherson region,” Budanov said on Monday. “They will lose, even theoretically, the possibility of supplying water to the North Crimea channel, to Crimea, until the dam is rebuilt, which will take a very long time. It will be impossible to do it.’

“And the most interesting thing is that they will destroy the possibility of the existence of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, because this facility is inextricably linked.”

Budanov still believes that Kherson can be liberated by the end of the year, and that Russia is actively preparing for a possible withdrawal.

“Our units in Mariupol risk ending up in the same situation they found themselves in before,” he said. “It’s a slightly different situation, but conceptually it will be very similar.”

“And having understood all this, they are preparing the ground so that, if necessary, they can get out of there very quickly.”

Meanwhile, in Kherson, the man CNN spoke to said he and the rest of the city’s residents were stocking up on food and essentials, preparing for what could be a difficult period.

“It’s our city. We think we have to wait for our army to come,” he said. “I can’t say that we are not afraid, we are afraid, but this is our decision.”

CNN’s Clarissa Ward, Maria Avdeeva, Jo Shelley, Josh Pennington and Olga Voitovych contributed to this report.