Russia has evacuated tens of thousands of civilians from a key southern city as Ukraine prepares for a major offensive – but something doesn’t seem right.
For days, Moscow has trumpeted the evacuation of occupied Kherson, organized by the Russian-installed authorities in the face of a counter-offensive from Kyiv.
Kyiv forces are preparing for a fierce battle to retake the region’s main city, Kherson, and surrounding areas on the right bank of the Dnipro, after making significant gains in eastern and southern Ukraine.
The city, with a pre-war population of around 288,000, was one of the first to fall to troops from Moscow at the start of the February invasion and its recapture would mark an important milestone for Kyiv .
The Kherson region serves as a gateway to Crimea, a peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Moscow forces vowed to make Kherson a “fortress” against advancing Ukrainian troops.
Since mid-October, the occupation authorities have been urging residents of Kherson to cross the left bank of the Dnipro, deeper into Moscow-controlled territory and closer to the southern regions of Russia.
On Friday, the movement of residents – which Kyiv likened to Soviet-style “deportations” – was over.
“The work of organizing residents leaving for the left bank of the Dnipro [river] to safe regions of Russia is over,” Sergei Aksyonov, the head of Crimea appointed by Moscow, said on social media on Thursday evening.
“The crossing (of the Dnipro) is empty!” Aksyonov said after touring the area with Kremlin domestic chief Sergei Kiriyenko.
“I am happy that everyone who wanted to quickly and safely leave the areas bombed by the Ukrainian army did so.”
He posted photos of himself and other officials, including Kirienko, on a riverbank.
A Russian official based in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said at least 70,000 people had left their homes in the region in the space of a week.
Evacuated civilians will receive “certificates” for free housing in Russia, Moscow and the Kherson administration said.
Pro-Kremlin media also reported that the troop withdrawal had saved two heavy bronze statues of 18th-century Russian commanders.
Moscow claims to evacuate because Ukraine plans to bomb the Nova Kakhovka dam to flood the region – which Kyiv denies.
Volodymyr Zelensky said this week the evacuation was not what it seemed.
Speaking to an Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera On Thursday, Ukraine’s president said the high-profile evacuation of civilians and monuments was a Kremlin trap to create an illusion of panic.
“Their best-trained troops are in place,” he said. “Nobody left. We see it and don’t believe them.
And a Ukrainian serviceman who spent months on the front lines said AlJazeera Russian media coverage of the evacuation was too strong and too pre-calculated to be true.
“We don’t fall for it, because it’s too deliberate and designed to create a media buzz, to create a certain mood,” he told the broadcaster.
According AlJazeeraintelligence data and satellite photos for the past few days show that Russia has fortified the city of Kherson and the city of Nova Kakhovka.
Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told the media that the evacuation of civilian residents from the right bank of the Dnieper to the left was “just preparations and propaganda stuff “.
“In fact, they are strengthening their group there, with manpower – there are more of them,” he said, adding that the group could even be preparing for a possible counterattack.
On Thursday, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Ukrainian military sources “continued to claim that Russian forces were carrying out defensive operations along the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in anticipation of future Ukrainian advances. “.
“The Ukrainian General Staff reported on October 27 that Russian troops were fortifying equipment in positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro and carrying out active aerial reconnaissance,” the US-based think tank said in its final assessment of the battlefield.
“Russian sources claimed that Ukrainian troops carried out limited ground attacks in Kherson Oblast on October 27. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Russian troops repelled Ukrainian attacks northwest of the city of Kherson and in western Kherson Oblast.
The Kyiv army, meanwhile, said on Friday that the “so-called evacuation” of Moscow was continuing.
He claimed that the Russian command in Kherson was trying to “hide real military losses” in order to “avoid panic”.
In a sign that Moscow is suffering heavy casualties, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said late Thursday that 23 of his fighters had been killed in battles around Kherson this week and dozens more had been injured.
“Early this week, one of the Chechen units was shelled in the Kherson region,” Kadyrov, who sent his militia to fight alongside Kremlin forces, told Telegram.
“23 soldiers were killed and 58 wounded,” he said.
The Kremlin ally rarely reveals its defeats but admitted the losses were “big that day”.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, local authorities reported a Russian strike that injured one person and damaged two multi-storey buildings and a bakery in the southern Mykolaiv region.
In the eastern region of Donetsk, four people have been killed and nine others injured in the past 24 hours, including in Bakhmut, a town where heavy fighting is taking place, regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Aksyonov also said he and Kiriyenko visited the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – Europe’s largest atomic facility – further north on the Dnipro River in Russian-occupied territory.
Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of bombing the plant, raising fears of a nuclear disaster.
Aksyonov said he “met with the staff and assessed the general situation in the factory area”.
Ukraine has accused Moscow forces of “kidnapping” factory staff and said last week that around 50 workers were being held “captivity”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called on the UN atomic agency to inspect Ukraine’s nuclear site “as soon as possible” following Moscow’s allegations that Kyiv is planning a “dirty bomb” attack.
A dirty bomb is a conventional bomb containing radioactive, biological or chemical material that is dispersed in an explosion.
Kyiv has dismissed the claims as “dangerous” lies and suspects Russia may itself be using a dirty bomb in a “false flag” attack.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced on Thursday that it would carry out an “independent verification” of Russian allegations concerning the production of so-called dirty bombs at two sites in Ukraine.
In a rambling speech, Mr Putin warned that the world was facing the most dangerous decade since the end of the Second World War.
He went on to allege that “the West has taken several steps towards escalation and they are still trying to escalate.”
“They fuel the war in Ukraine, organize politicians around Taiwan, destabilize global food and energy markets,” he said.
But he also hinted that he was open to peace talks with the West.
“Either we continue to pile on the burden of problems that are meant to overwhelm us all, or we can work together to find working, albeit imperfect, solutions that can make our world more stable and secure,” he said.
“The crisis has taken on a truly global dimension. It affects everyone and we should have no illusions, humanity is basically faced with two options.