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Ukraine is skeptical of Russian claims that it is withdrawing from Kherson

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's Defense Ministry has ordered its troops to pull out of a strategic city in southern Ukraine.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The planned retreat from Kherson is one more setback for Moscow's forces in this war.

FADEL: NPR's Jason Beaubien joins us from Dnipro, Ukraine, to tell us more about this. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

FADEL: So how significant is this withdrawal by Russia?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Well, first, while we are seeing evidence that Russian troops are starting to depart, they haven't yet entirely pulled out of the city.

FADEL: OK.

BEAUBIEN: Ukrainian officials, including President Zelenskyy, are still quite skeptical about this whole move by Moscow and are approaching the announcement quite cautiously. But if the Russian military does withdraw to the east bank of the Dnipro River, as the Russian Defense Ministry is calling for, this is a major win for the Ukrainians. You know, for months, Ukraine has been slowly and steadily closing in on Kherson. But the big fear was that Russia could try to fiercely defend the city and things might deteriorate into a disastrous situation like we saw in Mariupol or a street battle like happened in Aleppo with Russian troops there. If this all goes to plan, it could seem like we're going to avoid the bloodbath that people were really worried about potentially happening in Kherson.

FADEL: But you mention all this skepticism from Ukrainian officials. Why the skepticism?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, they're skeptical because the loss of Kherson City would be a major embarrassment for the Kremlin. This is the capital of one of the regions that Moscow claimed to have formally annexed into the Russian Federation in September. And President Putin said it's going to be part of Russia forever. So, you know, by the Kremlin logic, this is officially now part of Russia, and they're giving it up. And also it's the only regional capital that Russia has seized since the invasion. There had been word that Russian military officers had asked to retreat earlier but were ordered to stay, you know. And there's still concern in Kyiv that potentially this is a trap that Moscow is trying to lure Ukrainian troops into Kherson, where they'd be ambushed.

FADEL: So help us understand a little bit more about what the Russian Defense Ministry actually announced. Does this mean Russia's abandoning Kherson entirely?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, that's an important point. The Russians say they're simply pulling back to a more strategic position, and they're doing this to save Russian troops. But it's still a very dangerous retreat, in part because they have to cross the largest river in Ukraine. And the Ukrainians have blown up the bridge that's going out of Kherson. And the Russians could be doing this retreat under Ukrainian fire the whole time. The order, as I mentioned, is for them to withdraw to the east bank of the Dnipro River. And that's just on the other side of the water from Kherson. So Russia will still be able to lob artillery shells. Tanks will still be able to fire at the city. They can drop mortars on it. You know, this is in no way the complete liberation of Kherson. And we are seeing some evidence that Russian forces are digging in trenches and building fortifications there on the east bank.

FADEL: OK. But this must be a morale boost for the Ukrainians, right?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, absolutely. It comes after other major victories by Ukrainian forces in the east of the country. For months, Russia has been steadily losing the territory that it seized early in the war. And this is one more major city that's now slipping out of their control. Also, the fact that this happened before winter fully sets in here is key. I mean, it's already quite cold here, but there was a lot of concern about how difficult it was going to be for Ukrainian troops to launch counteroffensive operations out there in the snow. So, you know, even though Ukrainian officials are being cautious, saying that they'll believe this retreat when they actually see it, this is being celebrated here as another significant win and evidence that the war, you know, although things are still quite tough, it's moving in the right direction from a Ukrainian perspective.

FADEL: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Dnipro, Ukraine. Thanks, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.