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Ukraine’s Forces Advance Cautiously on Kherson, Wary of Russia’s Retreat

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Ukraine urged caution about Russia’s announced withdrawal from the southern city of Kherson as its forces advanced slowly toward the city, and U.S. officials estimated that 100,000 troops on each side had been killed or wounded since the war began.

Russia said on Wednesday that it was pulling troops from Kherson and surrounding areas, abandoning the only regional capital it had seized since its invasion in February and boosting Ukraine’s campaign to regain lost land.

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Officials in Kyiv have warned that the Russian claim could be a way of luring Ukrainian soldiers into a bloody fight for the city, where signs suggest Russia still has a sizable contingent of forces and has booby-trapped key objects of infrastructure to slow Ukraine’s advance.

“It’s important to understand: No one leaves any place just like that,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late-night video address on Wednesday.

Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said Thursday that Ukraine had recaptured 12 settlements in the south in the past day, after Russia announced its withdrawal from the regional capital.

Ukrainian troops have cautiously advanced toward Kherson after Russia announced its retreat from the strategic city. WSJ looks at how Russia went from capturing the regional capital to ordering its troops to leave, in a symbolic blow for the Kremlin. Illustration: Adele Morgan

Ukrainian soldiers on Thursday posted a video from what they said was the center of Snihurivka, a town north of Kherson, and the camera panned to local residents cheering after months of Russian occupation.

“As of now, we can neither confirm nor deny the information about the so-called withdrawal,” Gen. Zaluzhny wrote on Twitter. He said Ukraine had reclaimed 41 settlements and up to 530 square miles in the Kherson area since Oct. 1. Russia’s Defense Ministry on Thursday confirmed that its forces were being moved to the Dnipro River’s eastern bank according to plan.

The loss of Kherson is a symbolic blow for the Kremlin, which had been dispatching officials from Moscow to hold meetings in Kherson with Russian-installed officials and promised Russia would remain in the region forever. In September, it declared it was annexing Kherson along with three other Ukrainian regions.

Control of the west bank of the Dnipro, where Kherson city lies, kept alive Russia’s aspiration to build a land bridge to the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, while maintaining pressure on Mykolaiv to the north with artillery strikes that have left that city without running water for months.

The Ukrainian military hasn’t named the Kherson-region settlements retaken by its forces since Russia announced its retreat. Lawmaker Ihor Kopytin said on Thursday that among them is Kyselivka—a village 13 miles northwest of the regional capital—where the water-supply station for the city of Mykolaiv is located. He said Mykolaiv would soon have running water, after pumping corrosive seawater through its pipes for months.

Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/REUTERS

If it proceeds with a full-scale withdrawal, Russia will be tasked with moving a large number of troops across the river to the eastern bank while relying on barges and pontoon bridges after high-precision Ukrainian strikes damaged key bridges leading into the city.

Ukrainian and Western officials say any withdrawal would likely take several days, and the Russian retreat will be covered by artillery fire and defensive positions across the water.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said Kyiv is seeing no sign that Russia will leave Kherson without a fight. The Russian military has heavily mined the city, he said on Thursday, and plans to use artillery positioned on the eastern bank to turn urban areas into ruin. Kherson, he said in a tweet, might be turned into a “city of death.”

“At the peak of mine contamination in Ukraine, we had 300,000 square kilometers of dangerous territory,’’ Mr. Zelensky said in his nightly address Thursday. He said under half of the mines have been cleared and about 170,000 square kilometers still need to be demined. “In particular, this is also the case in the most difficult areas—where hostilities are still ongoing, where the enemy will add mines before his retreat, as it is now in Kherson…Plus forests, plus a huge area of fields,’’ he added.

Pro-Kremlin journalists in the city have posted videos appearing to show barges taking cargo and vehicles across the river. “Today we crossed on barges for the final time,” Aleksandr Kots, a correspondent for Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, wrote on his Telegram channel.

“It’s clear why what is happening is happening,” Sergei Shilov, a reporter from Russian state news outlet RIA, said in a video post from a barge crossing the Dnipro. “Defending the city with such supplies would be complete madness.”

Photo: Celestino Arce/Zuma Press

Photo: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS

The announcement of a Russian withdrawal was widely anticipated for weeks, since Russia began to transfer troops and residents across the river and move loot including art and even historical monuments to the eastern bank starting in September, according to Ukrainian officials.

Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the top Russian commander in Ukraine, warned last month that difficult decisions would have to be made in regards to Kherson, and Russian military bloggers who often reflect the Kremlin line have been speculating about the timing of a Russian retreat from the city.

Russian paramilitary leaders who criticized the army for earlier retreats praised Wednesday’s decision. Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the paramilitary group Wagner, said the withdrawal was justified as it saved lives and preserved the army’s fighting strength.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t yet commented on the withdrawal, which has been framed as a purely military decision.

Some Russian military bloggers, however, were critical, saying it demonstrated the weakness of Russia’s armed forces. In announcing the decision, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu justified it by highlighting the need to safeguard the lives of Russian troops.

The war has ground on for months and has sapped the energy of both sides, as troops gird for the onset of winter and Ukraine struggles with blackouts caused by Russian missile and drone strikes that have damaged many of the country’s power stations.

Speaking at the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday evening, U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that roughly 100,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded. He added, “same thing probably on the Ukrainian side.”

The Russian defeat in Kherson comes as Ukraine continues to receive aid from its Western allies and seeks to convince them that it can win the war given enough military support, despite calls from some Western capitals for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia in a bid to end the war.

The U.S. said on Thursday that it would provide Ukraine another $400 million in security aid. The latest package will include 20 million small ammunition rounds, 21,000 155 mm artillery rounds to be launched by the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or Himars, 100 military vehicles and 400 grenade launchers, the Pentagon said.

Photo: Ashley Chan/Zuma Press

The package will also include missiles for HAWK surface-to-air defense systems, but the U.S. declined to say how many HAWK missiles it was providing, citing operational security.

In all, the U.S. has given more than $18.6 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

The U.K. on Wednesday said it had provided approximately 1,000 additional surface-to-air missiles to help counter the Russian threat to Ukrainian infrastructure.

“This commitment of hundreds more surface-to-air missiles continues our defensive support for Ukraine against Russian aggression—and will help Ukraine counter the threat from illegal targeting of critical national infrastructure,” the U.K.’s defense minister, Ben Wallace, said during a visit to two training sites where more than 7,400 Ukrainian recruits have been trained by British forces alongside eight partner nations.

The arms support consists of launchers and missiles capable of shooting down air targets, including the kinds of drones and cruise missiles that have hit Ukrainian infrastructure recently.

Write to Matthew Luxmoore at Matthew.Luxmoore@wsj.com

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