Vladimir Putin’s military was reportedly forced to evacuate civilians in Russian-annexed regions of Ukraine as Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces ramped up their counter-offence. Russia’s TASS news agency reported a first group of civilians fleeing from Kherson was expected to arrive in Russia’s Rostov region as soon as Friday. “Every day, the cities of Kherson region are subjected to missile attacks,” Russian-installed Kherson administration chief Vladimir Saldo said in a video message.
“As such, the leadership of the Kherson administration has decided to provide Kherson families with the option to travel to other regions of the Russian Federation to rest and study,” he said.
“We suggested that all residents of the Kherson region, if they wish, to protect themselves from the consequences of missile strikes, … go to other regions,” he said. People should “leave with their children”.
The prompt to go applied foremost to residents on the west bank of the Dnipro River, he said. That includes the regional capital, the only major Ukrainian city Russia has captured intact since invading in February.
Kherson is one of four partially occupied Ukrainian provinces that Russia claims to have annexed in recent weeks, and arguably the most strategically important. It controls both the only land route to the Crimea peninsula Russia seized in 2014, and the mouth of the Dnipro, the 2,200 km (1,367 mile)-long river that bisects Ukraine.
Since the start of October, Ukrainian forces have burst through Russia’s front lines there in their biggest advance in the south since the war began. They have since been advancing rapidly along the west bank, aiming to cut off thousands of Russian troops from supply lines and potential escape routes across it.
Tass quoted the governor of Russia’s Rostov region, which borders on the Ukrainian territories Russia claims to have annexed, as saying his region was prepared to host anyone who chose to leave Kherson, with the first group expected on Friday.
Moments after MR Saldo’s message, his deputy, Kirill Stremousov, issued a statement denying any plan to evacuate.
“There is and can be no evacuation in Kherson region,” Stremousov said, adding in a written comment: “Nobody is planning to withdraw Russian troops from the Kherson region.”
A flight of civilians from Kherson would be a major blow to Russia’s claim to have annexed around 15% of Ukraine’s territory and incorporated an area the size of Portugal into Russia.
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Russia has concentrated many of its best-trained troops to defend its grip on Kherson’s west bank. But that force can only be supplied across the river, which is several kilometres wide and has few crossings.
In the past two weeks Ukraine has recaptured a swath of territory, with its forces bearing down towards the 3 km-long (2 mile-long) Nova Kakhovka dam that provides one of the last river crossings.
Mykolaiv, the nearest big Ukrainian-held city to Kherson, came under massive Russian bombardment on Thursday, with civilian facilities hit, local officials said.
Regional governor Vitaly Kim said the top two floors of a five-story residential building were destroyed and the rest were under rubble. Video footage provided by state emergency services showed rescuers pulling out an 11-year-old boy who Kim said had spent six hours trapped under the rubble.
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In the east, three Russian missiles exploded on Thursday morning near the central market in Kupiansk, a major railway junction city that Ukrainian forces recaptured during their big advance there in September.
The missiles destroyed shops, carpeting surrounding streets with glass shards, rubble, and twisted metal sheets.
Ukraine’s gains in the south this month followed rapid gains in the east since September.
Putin has responded to the battlefield setbacks with dramatic moves to escalate the conflict: proclaiming the annexation of territory, calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists and repeatedly threatening to use nuclear weapons to protect Russia.
This week, Putin launched the biggest air strikes since the start of the war, firing more than 100 cruise missiles mainly at electricity and heat infrastructure, with some landing in parks, busy roads and at tourist sites. Putin said the strikes were retaliation for a blast on Saturday that damaged Russia’s bridge to Crimea.
Although the nationwide air strikes have tapered since Tuesday, Russian forces have continued to strike towns and cities closer to the front.