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MOSCOW and KYIV – Russia-backed authorities began an evacuation of civilians from the occupied Ukrainian region of Kherson Wednesday — in a sign that Moscow’s hold over the territory looks increasingly in jeopardy amid a surging Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In a video addressVladimir Saldo, the Kremlin-installed administrator, called on residents from districts surrounding the regional capital of Kherson to evacuate across the Dnipro river — a key defense line — as Ukrainian forces continue to gain ground in Ukraine’s south.
Saldo offered residents the option of relocating to cities “in any part of Russia,” and said the Russian government would provide housing vouchers to those who wished to move further from the fighting.
“Let the Russian army do its job,” he said.
Others within his administration were less measured.
Kirill Stremousov, Saldo’s Moscow-appointed deputy, urged residents to evacuate “as quickly as possible” — saying the battle for Kherson “would soon begin.”
“We will not surrender the city, and we will fight to the end,” he said, adding that residents whose homes might be damaged from shelling could receive compensation from the Russian government.
“The Russians feel squeezed between our forces and the banks of the Dnipro, so they’re looking for ways to punish local communities,” said Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern command, on national television. Ukrainian commanders have set a goal to liberate Kherson by the winter.
Russia’s top commander in Ukraine suggested his forces may need to withdraw amid the Ukrainian advances.
In his first interview since being appointed to lead Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine Oct. 8, General Sergei Surovikin called the situation in Kherson “very difficult” and refused to rule out “the hardest decisions.”
Surovikin — who has overseen the mass bombardment of Ukrainian cities since taking over — accused Kyiv of targeting civilians and said Russia’s focus was now on saving lives.
“We will operate with the goal of maximizing the safety of civilian population and our soldiers. That is our priority,” Surovikin told the Zvezda channela state media outlet funded by Russia’s Defense Ministry.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, suggested similar schemes are a “pretext for deporting Ukrainian citizens to Russian territory as they populate occupied areas with Russian citizens.”
It was unclear how many residents were heeding the Russian warnings to evacuate.
According to Russian state media, Kherson residents received text messages with instructions to catch evacuation buses out of the city.
Pro-Kremlin media reports also showed people with bags lined up to catch ferry boats across the Dnipro river.
Separately, the Russian-backed authorities announced they were closing off travel into Kherson for the next week.
Kherson is one of four Ukrainian regions Russia claimed to have formally annexed following a series of staged referendums in September.
Both the referendums and annexation bids have been widely denounced by the international community.
Despite claiming the lands as part of the Russian Federation, Moscow’s forces never managed to establish full control over the territories.