Russia’s flag has come down over the main administrative building in Kherson, Ukraine, but Ukrainian officials and war experts aren’t convinced surrender is nigh.
They suspect Russia may be setting an elaborate trap, creating the illusion of surrender while simultaneously ramping up reinforcements for a major battle to come.
“The statements coming from Russia are contradictory. They seem very intent on convincing everybody that they’re going to leave, but what they’re doing doesn’t seem to be consistent with that,” said Branislav Slantchev, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, who writes about the war.
The flag is just the latest sign of surrender coming from Russia in the city of Kherson, a key strategic position that is crucial to Russia’s aspirations of advancing farther west, toward the major port in Odesa.
Russian-installed officials in Kherson have evacuated tens of thousands of civilians from the city and surrounding areas in recent weeks. Pro-Kremlin media members have reported that withdrawing Russian troops carried away bronze statues of 18th-century Russian commanders. And occupying officials have moved their headquarters 50 miles to the southeast.
But at the same time, some 40,000 Russian troops are deployed on the west bank of the Dnieper River in the city, more than ever before.
Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Kremlin-installed administration in Kherson, told state media on Thursday that those Russian troops will “most likely” leave for the east bank.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week told an Italian newspaper that the movement was a ruse.
“Their best-trained troops are in place. Nobody left. We see it and don’t believe them,” he said.
Ukraine has been making piecemeal gains in the Kherson region in recent weeks as part of a massive autumn counteroffensive that has seen sweeping gains in the northeast. Ukrainian officials say they have retaken 100 towns and villages as they press in toward the region’s capital, which was the first major city to fall after Russia’s invasion in February.
“While there’s some commotion and movement going on, it’s not decisive. It doesn’t appear that Russians have at this moment entirely given up Kherson city,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Stepanenko said the group, which tracks daily movements in the conflict, has observed Russia shift some military elements across the river. But the country is also setting up defensive positions northwest of the city, she added.
“A removal of a flag is not an indicator that Russians are withdrawing from the city at this moment,” Stepanenko said.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, said the obvious signs of surrender may be an attempt to convince Ukrainian forces that it’s safe to push forward, “while [Russian forces] are preparing for street battles,” Reuters reported.
“The occupiers are clearly up to something!” wrote Yevhen Ryschuk, the mayor of the neighboring town of Oleshky, adding that Russian troops abandoned checkpoints in three settlements close to Kherson and that the number of troops in the provincial capital has decreased.
“It is hard to believe that the enemies will simply take and leave Kherson, the only regional center that they managed to capture. It is very important for Putin, so we are waiting, the occupiers are clearly hatching some bloody plan,” Ryschuk added.
A Kherson resident told The New York Times, “I think that they are removing their personnel so that in the case of a breakthrough of the defensive lines, they can easily shell the city,”
Slantchev similarly said he suspects Russia wants to pull Ukraine into a major battle for Kherson city.
“Kherson might be a kind of an elaborate attempt to try to draw the Ukrainian forces into an assault in the belief that it could be easy, and then it won’t be and then they will have to send reinforcements,” Slantchev said.
With more Ukrainian forces focused on Kherson, Russia may have more success in theaters such as Bakhmut, where Wagner Group forces have been pounding Ukrainian positions — which have so far held the line — for weeks.
However, if Ukraine successfully surrounds Russian forces on the Dnieper’s west bank, it would only be a matter of time before Moscow has to surrender or find a way to break through and either resupply or replace the tens of thousands of Russians stationed there.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed optimism during a news conference on Thursday that Ukrainian forces will liberate the city but did not answer a question about whether he believes Russian forces were retreating.
“On the issue of whether or not the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the west side of the Dnieper River in Kherson, I certainly believe that they have the capability to do that,” Austin said. “Most importantly, the Ukrainians believe that they have the capability to do that.”