Russia's defense minister said Wednesday that Moscow's troops were retreating from the key southern Ukraine city of Kherson, although Ukrainian officials expressed skepticism that a full withdrawal was underway from the lone regional capital Russia had captured since its invasion last February.
Although such a withdrawal would be a major setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden would not say Wednesday whether this would prompt Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow.
"It remains to be seen whether or not there'll be a judgment made as to whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia," he said. "I'm going to be going to the G-20. I'm told that President Putin is not likely to be there but other world leaders are going to be there in Indonesia, and we're going to have an opportunity to see what the next steps may be."
Russian defense chief Sergei Shoigu made the announcement in a televised meeting with Russia's top military leaders as General Sergei Surovikin, the commander for Russia's forces in Ukraine, told Shoigu the withdrawal decision was difficult but would "preserve lives of servicemen and combat readiness of forces."
Ukrainian advances had put Kyiv's forces within striking distance of Kherson.
"Under these conditions," Surovikin said, "the city of Kherson and nearby settlements cannot be supplied in a fully fledged manner. After a thorough assessment of the current situation, I offer to take up defense along the left bank of the Dnipro River."
Shoigu responded, "Go ahead with the pullout of troops, and take all measures to ensure safe transfer of troops, weapons and equipment to the other bank of the Dnipro River."
But Ukraine was initially skeptical of the Russian retreat, suggesting it might be a Russian ruse for an ambush of Ukrainian troops.
"The enemy does not give us gifts, does not make 'goodwill gestures', we win it all," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily address to the nation, adding any gains by Ukraine come at the expense of "lives lost by our heroes."
Ukraine’s army was, he said, "moving very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk, in the interests of liberating all our land and so that the losses are as small as possible."
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter that he expected some Russian forces to remain in Kherson. He said Ukraine would declare the city freed from Russian control based on its own intelligence, not televised Russian statements.
Winter as weapon
Meanwhile, the Eastern European countries of Slovakia and Hungary said they were preparing for an increase in refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine in the coming months as winter approaches.
Russia has targeted power and heating plants in Ukraine in the past few months. Temperatures have been dropping below zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), with lows of minus 20 degrees Celsius in the region. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said about 4 million people are out of power.
Roman Dohovic, an aid coordinator for the eastern Slovak city of Kosice, said the number of refugees is "currently up 15%," with about 6.9 million people believed to be internally displaced within Ukraine.
Biden said on Wednesday that he expected U.S. aid to Ukraine to continue despite a warning last month from Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives would not would not write a "blank check" to the besieged nation.
"There's so much at stake," Biden said. "So I would be surprised if Leader McCarthy even has a majority of his Republican colleagues who say they're not going to fund the legitimate defensive needs of Ukraine."
Russia continues to deploy its troops and call on reservists in a continuation of its invasion. Ukraine's forces have been fending off attacks, according to reports, and are also on the offensive.
As part of its broader war efforts, Russia has been working on repairing the Crimean Bridge that was damaged in October, but the British Defense Ministry said Wednesday that the bridge is "unlikely to be fully operational until at least September 2023."
The road bridge was scheduled to close Tuesday in order to install a 64-meter span, the ministry said in an intelligence update it posted on Twitter. Three additional spans are needed to rebuild the bridge, it added.
"Although Crimean officials have claimed these additional spans will be in place by 20 December, a briefing provided to President Putin added that works to the other carriageway would cause disruption to road traffic until March 2023," the intelligence update said.
The bridge had been used to transfer Russian logistics supplies for Crimea and southern Ukraine, as well as military equipment and troops. The bridge damage, along with other setbacks, significantly hinders Russia's ability to "paint a picture of military success," the Defense Ministry said.
Elsewhere in Russian-occupied areas, the Kremlin-installed mayor in the town of Snihurivka, east of the southern city of Mykolaiv, was cited by Russia's RIA news agency as saying residents had seen tanks and that fierce fighting was going on.
"They got into contact during the day and said there were tanks moving around and, according to their information, heavy fighting on the edge of the town," Reuters quoted Mayor Yuri Barabashov as saying, sharing accounts of residents.
"People saw this equipment moving through the streets in the town center," Barabashov said.
The Ukrainian governor of Mykolaiv region, Vitaly Kim, said Ukraine's offenses have pushed Russian troops out of the region.
"Russian troops are complaining that they have already been thrown out of there," Kim said in a statement on his Telegram channel.
The Reuters news agency reported that it was not able to independently verify the accounts coming from the warring sides. No official confirmation from Ukraine and Russia was issued on the battleground reports, the report added.
Some information in this report came from Reuters.