A Ukrainian official urged civilians to leave the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, across from the city of Kherson, warning of the “possible intensification of hostilities” there.
KYIV, Ukraine — Less than a month after driving Russian forces from the city of Kherson on the west bank of the Dnipro River, the Ukrainian authorities on Saturday issued an urgent call for civilians to evacuate Russian-occupied areas on the eastern bank, suggesting that Kyiv’s military might press its offensive and try to establish a foothold across the waterway.
“The evacuation is necessary due to the possible intensification of hostilities in this area,” Yaroslav Yanushevych, the head of the Kherson regional military administration, in Ukraine’s south, said in an announcement to residents.
With all of the main river crossings having been destroyed, the only way to gain the western shore would be on private boats and other vessels, and it remains unclear how many people would be able to make it across the river or even try to.
A ban on river crossings is being lifted from Saturday to Monday to facilitate the evacuations, Mr. Yanushevych said, noting that only one dock would be opened. All those fleeing Russian-occupied territories must bring documents certifying their identity and confirming their Ukrainian citizenship, he said.
The public call for evacuations, while most likely intended to signal to Russia that an assault might be coming, could also be an element in the information war. Before Ukraine launched its counteroffensive in the north this fall, officials issued several highly public warnings about a coming counteroffensive in the Kherson region. That did eventually happen, though well after Russia had suffered grievous losses in the north.
The State of the War
- A Pivotal Point: Ukraine is on the offensive, but with about one-fifth of its territory still occupied by Russian forces, there is still a long way to go, and the onset of winter will bring new difficulties.
- Ukraine’s Electric Grid: As many Ukrainians head into winter without power or water, Western officials say that rebuilding Ukraine’s battered energy infrastructure needs to be considered a second front in the war.
- A Bloody Vortex : Even as they have celebrated successes elsewhere, Ukrainian forces in the small eastern city of Bakhmut have endured relentless Russian attacks. And the struggle to hold it is only intensifying.
- Dnipro River: A volunteer Ukrainian special forces team has been conducting secret raids under the cover of darkness, traveling across the strategic waterway that has become the dividing line of the southern front.
Ukrainian forces are pushing on into the winter after those two sweeping counteroffensives in the northeast and south. They are also once again stepping up strikes on Russian supply routes, command centers and ammunition depots from new forward positions.
In an effort to staunch its losses and regain momentum in the war, the Russian military has been funneling newly drafted conscripts with little training and mostly inadequate equipment along the front lines in Ukraine, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research group, said in a Friday assessment.
But as the ground hardens and fighting intensifies, Russia remains mostly on the defensive, and analysts said that the Russian-held area east of Kherson city and the Dnipro River was not well defended.
“Russian forces clearly do not expect to be able to prevent Ukrainian forces from getting across the river, nor are the Russians prioritizing defensive positions to stop such a crossing,” the Institute for the Study of War said this past week after analyzing publicly available satellite photos of the Russian defensive positions.
The Russian withdrawal from Kherson was both an embarrassment for the Kremlin, which had only recently declared the region to be a part of Russia, and a strategic setback, as it put the Ukrainians in a better position to threaten supply lines from Crimea with long-range precision weapons provided by the West.
Since their retreat, Russian forces have continued to shell the region and the city of Kherson. The local Ukrainian authorities said on Saturday that Russian troops had opened fire 28 times the previous day, striking a number of targets, including residential buildings and an oncology center. Those details could not be independently verified.
After being driven across the Dnipro, Russian forces set about fortifying defensive positions about 10 to 20 miles from the eastern bank, according to the Ukrainian military and satellite images. But the river divides Ukrainian and Russian forces along a route that stretches more than 200 miles, and Russian forces are spread thin.
Farther to the northeast, where the river widens into a vast reservoir held back by a vital dam in Nova Kakhovka, Ukrainian officials and residents said that the Russian occupation administration this past week began to flee farther east.
The Ukrainian military has noted that it was seeing a decrease in the number of Russian troops in the towns and villages along the river. “A minimal number of occupiers remain in the cities,” the military said last month.
The account was supported by local residents reached by telephone in recent days.
North of the dam, speculation continued to swirl around Russian intentions at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which has been occupied by Russian forces since early in the war, and where Ukrainian intelligence has estimated that at least 500 Russian soldiers are garrisoned.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said at a news conference in Rome on Friday that the agency was “almost there” in brokering a deal for Russian troops to pull out of the plant and to create a demilitarized zone around the facility, which has been at the center of frequent shelling.
“We have a proposal on the table which, simply put, is aiming to stop the folly of bombing the largest nuclear power plant in Europe,” he said.
Although the Kremlin has pushed back on Ukrainian suggestions that its forces were preparing to leave the nuclear plant, Alexei Likhachev, the head of Russia’s nuclear energy agency, confirmed that negotiations were continuing with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog group.