Ukrainian rocket artillery unloads on Russian positions near the city of Kherson as Putin's commanders attempt to get their men out of the city using only pontoons and small boats

Russia is facing ‘huge losses’ in Kherson with up to 20,000 of Vladimir Putin’s men now surrounded and being pounded by Ukrainian artillery while trying to hold off Kyiv’s rapidly advancing troops, an expert has warned. 

Commanders are today grappling with the ‘enormously difficult’ task of getting tens of thousands of men, tanks, and armoured vehicles back across the Dnipro River – over a kilometre wide at some points – using only small boats and pontoon bridges after Ukraine blew the main crossings to smithereens using HIMARS.

Justin Crump, CEO of defence analysts Sibylline, said such a task would be ‘hugely challenging’ for even the best militaries – let alone the Russian army in its current state. He said Ukrainian troops are trying to cut off Russia’s retreat by advancing along the Dnipro River which is already causing ‘panic’ among Moscow’s men. 

Videos that emerged overnight showed Ukrainian rocket artillery unleashing a devastating barrage on Russian forces now trapped in Kherson, having advanced rapidly through the surrounding countryside to hem the city in from three sides. Others showed the night sky lighting up with explosions. 

Mr Crump told the BBC: ‘There is an opportunity here for the Ukrainians to inflict a really damaging blow on Russia.

‘It wouldn’t knock [Russia] out of the war but it would be a huge setback to take those kind of losses. The withdrawal is something Russia is doing to try and avoid further losses… but that is what they’re facing.

Ukrainian rocket artillery unloads on Russian positions near the city of Kherson as Putin's commanders attempt to get their men out of the city using only pontoons and small boats

Ukrainian rocket artillery unloads on Russian positions near the city of Kherson as Putin’s commanders attempt to get their men out of the city using only pontoons and small boats

Ukraine artillery

Ukraine artillery

Russia is facing potentially ‘huge losses’ in Kherson, an expert has warned, with up to 20,000 men surrounded while Ukraine shells the city heavily (left and right) and advances along multiple routes

Ukrainian partisans operating inside Kherson appear to have raised the national flag outside the recently-abandoned civil administration building as Russian forces withdraw from the city

Ukrainian partisans operating inside Kherson appear to have raised the national flag outside the recently-abandoned civil administration building as Russian forces withdraw from the city

The Antonovskiy Bridge, which is the main route out of Kherson, appears to have been completely destroyed overnight

The Antonovskiy Bridge, which is the main route out of Kherson, appears to have been completely destroyed overnight

Ukraine had warned that Russia could be laying a trap for its forces in Kherson, but pressed ahead rapidly with an attack overnight and is now thought to have all-but surrounded the city

Ukraine had warned that Russia could be laying a trap for its forces in Kherson, but pressed ahead rapidly with an attack overnight and is now thought to have all-but surrounded the city

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said overnight that Russia has a contingent of 40,000 troops in Kherson region and intelligence showed its forces remained inside the city, around the city and on the west bank of the wide Dnipro River.

‘It’s not that easy to withdraw these troops from Kherson in one day or two days. As a minimum, (it will take) one week,’ Reznikov said.

Russia announced on Wednesday it would withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro that includes Kherson city, the only regional capital Moscow has captured since invading Ukraine in February.

The retreat is the most-humiliating loss yet suffered by Putin’s already-shame-faced armed forces.

Kherson is the capital of a region that he annexed to Russia just weeks ago, saying it would be ‘forever’ part of the ‘motherland’. It was also the only toe-hold his forces had on the west bank of the Dnipro River, and a checkpoint on the road to Odesa – a key objective of the war.

Losing it means any assault on Odesa is now all-but impossible. It also means that Ukraine can now strike parts of Crimea – the crown jewel of his last invasion, in 2014 – with long-range artillery. Kyiv has already said it plans to take the peninsula back. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted today that Kherson remains part of Russia’s territory – despite Moscow’s troops fleeing from it.

‘This is a subject of the Russian Federation. There are no changes in this and there cannot be changes,’ Peskov said, insisting that Putin had ‘no regrets’ about annexing it.

However, Western military and diplomatic sources cautioned that the Russian military move did not mean all was said and done – even if it were a major victory for Ukraine.

‘It’s definitely a turning point, but it doesn’t mean that Russia has lost or that Ukraine has won,’ said Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. ‘Russia was still capable of a new offensive or counterattacks. It is far too soon to write them off,’ Barry said.

Ukrainian forces have liberated 41 settlements as they advanced through the south, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his Thursday evening video address.

Sappers and pyrotechnicians were going into areas retaken from Russian forces to rid them of thousands of unexploded landmines and ordnance they left behind, he said.

About 170,000 square kilometres (66,000 square miles) remained to be de-mined, Zelenskiy said, including in places where there was still fighting and ‘where the enemy will add landmines before its withdrawal, as is the case now with Kherson.’

Ukrainian advance

Ukrainian advance

Ukrainian troops have begun advancing into the area around Kherson city evacuated by Russia mid fears Moscow’s men may be laying a trap for them, uncovering destroyed vehicles along their way (left and right)

Ukrainian advance

Ukrainian advance

A Russian military vehicle painted with war symbols is seen (left) as Ukrainian troops advance into areas previously held by Moscow’s troops, as they appear to withdraw from the region

Kyiv's men are shown liberating the village of Snihurivka, around 30 miles north of Kherson, today after Russian forces began retreating from their positions back across the Dnipro River

Kyiv’s men are shown liberating the village of Snihurivka, around 30 miles north of Kherson, today after Russian forces began retreating from their positions back across the Dnipro River

A Ukrainian soldier based in Kherson takes part in a training exercise as Kyiv's men get ready to advance into the region that Russia has said it is evacuating, amid fears the 'retreat' is actually a trap

A Ukrainian soldier based in Kherson takes part in a training exercise as Kyiv’s men get ready to advance into the region that Russia has said it is evacuating, amid fears the ‘retreat’ is actually a trap

Ukrainian soldiers from the 63 brigade train for trench warfare in the northern Kherson region, as they prepare to advance towards the regional capital in the south after Russia said it was evacuating

Ukrainian soldiers from the 63 brigade train for trench warfare in the northern Kherson region, as they prepare to advance towards the regional capital in the south after Russia said it was evacuating

A Ukrainian tank advances towards the front line in Kherson after Russian commanders said they would be withdrawing, giving up the only regional capital they have taken since the February invasion

A Ukrainian tank advances towards the front line in Kherson after Russian commanders said they would be withdrawing, giving up the only regional capital they have taken since the February invasion

A Ukrainian gunner loads high-calibre rounds into the main gun mounted on top of his tank as he prepared to advance in the Kherson region after Russia said it was retreating

A Ukrainian gunner loads high-calibre rounds into the main gun mounted on top of his tank as he prepared to advance in the Kherson region after Russia said it was retreating

The region’s Ukrainian-appointed governor, Yaroslav Yanushevych, writing on the Telegram messaging app, said Russian troops had ‘taken away public equipment, damaged power lines and wanted to leave a trap behind them’.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said Russia wanted to turn Kherson into a ‘city of death’, mining everything from apartments to sewers and planning to shell the city from the other side of the river.

A small group of Ukrainian soldiers was shown on Ukraine’s state TV being greeted by joyous residents in the centre of the village of Snihurivka, around 55 km (35 miles) north of Kherson city, with a Ukrainian flag fluttering above the square behind them. Reuters verified the location of the video.

A few kilometres away, in a devastated frontline village reached by Reuters in an area already held by Ukrainian forces, the guns had fallen silent for what residents said was the first quiet night since the war began.

‘We hope the silence means the Russians are leaving,’ said Nadiia Nizarenko, 85. The Russians could be preparing a trap, said Nizarenko’s daughter, Svitlana Lischeniuk, 63.

Still, there was joy. Petro Lupan, a volunteer distributing bread to residents, said he could not find words to express his feelings after he learned of the recapture of Snihurivka.

If Russia implements its withdrawal from an area that President Vladimir Putin proclaimed annexed a month ago, it would be its biggest retreat since its forces were driven back from the outskirts of Kyiv in March and a clear shift in the momentum of the nine-month-old war.

In the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, 54-year-old Larysa, who had recently fled Kherson to reach Ukrainian-held territory, said she could not reach family in the area.

‘We tried contacting them … but there was no connection. We don’t even know … the fate of our relatives.’

‘We’ve lived in the occupied territories for eight months. The situation there is difficult, especially psychologically. Our village is full of armed Russian soldiers … It is a miracle that we got out … There were tears of happiness when I saw our Ukrainian flag and our soldiers.’

Russian state media and pro-Kremlin war hawks defended the withdrawal from Kherson as a necessary move while acknowledging a heavy blow.

The retreat would leave Moscow with only limited gains to show for a ‘special military operation’ that made it a pariah in the West and, according to a U.S. estimate, has killed or wounded some 100,000 Russian soldiers.

Facing losses on the battlefield, Moscow has opened up the possibility of peace negotiations with Kyiv – something the US is said to be quietly pressing for behind the scenes.

American diplomats were said to view the expected slow-down of fighting between the two sides over winter as an opportunity to open up discussions, NBC reported yesterday.

General Mark Milley, chief of the generals staff, backed the idea – saying winter will provide ‘a window of opportunity for negotiation’ provided both sides can agree that victory is not possible by military means.

However, a conflicting report in the New York Times said that European officials were briefing that serious negotiations between the two sides are ‘unlikely in the near future.’

President Zelensky, speaking last night, said the onus is on the Russian side to prove they are genuine about negotiations and he sees ‘no desire’ in Putin to end the fighting.

‘When Russia truly wants peace, we will definitely feel it and see it,’ he said.

‘But you can’t wish for peace with words alone – words are not enough. Stop the war, withdraw from our territory, stop killing people, start reimbursing the damages inflicted on our country. Criminals must be prosecuted. Words are not enough.’

Zelensky said after the annexation of four partially occupied regions of Ukraine to Russia that he will never negotiate with Putin, and will instead hold talks with ‘the next Russian leader’.

He reiterated that determination last night, saying that Putin has done nothing but issue ultimatums to Ukraine since the start of the war – and shows no sign of changing his stance.

Zelensky added: ‘It is only the Kremlin and only one person – the head of the Russian Federation – who is not tired of the war. [Putin] might be tired of life in principle, because of his age, but he is definitely not tired of the war.’

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