Ukrainian forces have recaptured the strategic southern city of Kherson from Russian forces, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday, marking a major defeat for Russia in its invasion of its neighbor.
Austin’s comments coincided with a Russian installation in the Kherson region that Moscow may withdraw its troops from the west bank of the Dnipro River.
Ukraine says fighting is still ongoing in the area and it is wary of occupying Russian forces laying traps.
Austin did not answer a question about whether Russian troops were preparing to leave. But in his most optimistic comments about the counteroffensive in Ukraine, he expressed confidence in the ability to beat back Russian forces.
“In terms of whether the Ukrainians can take the rest of the territory west of the Dnipro River and Kherson, I believe they have the ability to do so,” Austin said at a Pentagon press conference.
“Most importantly, I believe that Ukrainians are capable of doing that. We have seen them engage in very small but effective efforts to take back their sovereign territory.”
The region’s capital and river port, Kherson, has been the only major city Russia has captured since the invasion began on February 24.
The area on the west bank of the river that Ukraine is trying to retake includes a large dam across the Dnipro that controls the water supply for irrigation of the Crimean peninsula.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, assessed that Russia was planning to withdraw eastward from their bridgehead on the western side of the river, where their forces would be better protected.
“We think this plan is almost certainly progressing,” the official said.
The official said that some Russian army commanders had returned to base on the other side of the river.
“Most of the command in Kherson has now withdrawn across the river to the east, and in some cases leaderless forces are facing the Ukrainians on the other side,” the Western official said.
Russia has been fighting for months over land it owns on the west bank of the Dnipro River, which runs through Ukraine. Moscow has sent tens of thousands of troops to reinforce the area, one of its biggest battlefield priorities.
Ukraine has been targeting key river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply large forces on the west bank. Ukrainian troops have been advancing along the river since early October, breaking through the Russian front line, although their progress has been slow.
Phil Stewart Reporting by Idrees Ali and Rami Ayyub; Edited by Chris Reese and Grant McCool.
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