The retreat of Russian forces from the west bank of the Dnipro River was ordered by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday in the face of Ukrainian attacks near the southern city of Kherson, according to Russian state media.
"The decision on the defense on the eastern bank of the Dnieper is not easy," Shoigu said, "at the same time we will preserve the lives of our soldiers and the combat capability of military formations."
The retreat of Russian troops will occur sometime "In the near future," according to Shoigu, although a specific date was not yet set. Troops will occupy already prepared defensive lines on the eastern bank of the river, according to Surovikin.
The commander of the Joint Group of Russian Forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, in a report to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, requested that Russian forces fall back across the Dnipro River in order to establish proper defensive lines.
"It is advisable to organize defense along the barrier line of the Dnieper River, along its left bank," Surovkivin said.
"I agree with your conclusions and proposals," Shoigu told Surovikin. "Start with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnieper River."
"Start with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnieper River."Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu
Surovikin also added that, despite an urgent call to retreat forces in Kherson, Russian troops have successfully resisted enemy offensive attempts along the entire line of contact.
The importance of Kherson
A senior adviser to Ukraine’s president said on Wednesday it was too early to talk about a Russian troop pullout from the southern city of Kherson.
"Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal," Mykhailo Podolyak said in a statement to Reuters.
"The right (west) bank is important for both sides - for (Russia) in order to ensure the steadiness of the defense of the Zaporizhzhia direction, and for (Ukraine) to free this direction and cut off these three important arteries: the land corridor to Crimea, the water to Crimea and to return control of the (nuclear plant)," said Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst.
The city of Kherson is to date the only regional capital that Russian forces have captured since the Feb. 24 invasion. Losing it would therefore be a major symbolic blow to the Kremlin and indicate Russia had - for now - failed to press ahead to the cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa whose capture Moscow had sought, said Oleksander Musiyenko, a military analyst.
"It's clear the loss of Kherson and the Kherson bridgehead will have consequences for Russia's image and will be viewed negatively inside Russia," he said.
NATO welcomes news from Kherson
NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on a visit to London, welcomed the news from Kherson and noted the substantial military help the alliance was providing to Kyiv.
"The victories, the gains the Ukrainian armed forces are making belongs to the brave, courageous Ukrainian soldiers but of course the support they receive from... NATO allies and partners are also essential," said Stoltenberg.
If Ukrainian forces take the entire west bank of the Dnipro, their US-supplied long-range artillery and HIMARS multiple rocket launchers would be able to strike Russian logistics bases and positions on the east bank defending the approaches to the annexed Crimea peninsula, according to military experts.
Stoltenberg also struck a note of caution.
"... we should not underestimate Russia, they still have capabilities," he told Sky News. "We have seen the drones, we have seen the missile attacks, it shows that Russia can still inflict a lot of damage."
Russia blames Ukraine for shelling civilian infrastructure
Surovikin, along with Russian media outlets, blamed Ukraine for shelling local government facilities, schools, hospitals, and other socially significant facilities, as well as purposely targeting the Kakhovka dam.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has previously stated that Russia is targeting the dam themselves in order to carry out a false-flag attack and blame Ukraine. If the dam were destroyed, Zelensky warned, it could devastate the water supply to much of the south and leave Europe's biggest nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia without cooling water, according to BBC.
Surovikin previously alleged that Ukrainian forces could be planning "banned methods of warfare" in Kherson city and the hydroelectric dam and argued that justified the "evacuation" of the civilian population, according to BBC. More than 115,000 people were evacuated from the Kherson region so far, according to RIA.
Russian-installed authorities in Kherson have rejected Ukraine's allegations of a plot to destroy the structure.
The Institute for the Study of War, an independent US-based think tank, has suggested Russia is "likely continuing to prepare for a false flag attack" on the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant, by creating "information conditions" for Russian forces to blow up the dam after they pull out of western Kherson and then accuse Ukraine of flooding the River and surrounding settlements.
Reuters contributed to this report.