Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that civilians in Ukraine’s Kherson region should be evacuated from the conflict zone, the Kremlin chief’s first admission that the situation is deteriorating in a region he claims to have annexed.
“Now, of course, those living in Kherson must be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions, because the civilian population should not suffer,” Putin told pro-Kremlin activists as he marked Russia’s Day of National Unity.
Putin’s comment, which came unexpectedly after an activist told the Russian president in Red Square about his work delivering Russian flags to Kherson, was shown on state television and reported by state news agency RIA.
The comment comes amid growing questions about whether Russian troops will stay and wage a bloody battle for the city of Kherson, or announce an impending retreat. Some Ukrainian officials warned on Thursday that signs of a possible Russian withdrawal from the crucial southern city could be a trap.
Russian-installed officials in the Kherson region, one of four Ukrainian provinces that Putin declared to be Russia at a ceremony in the Kremlin in September, have called on civilians to leave the western region of the region, where Ukrainian forces have recaptured territory in recent weeks.
On Thursday, Kherson’s Russian-appointed Deputy Governor Kirill Stremousov made several video calls to citizens to vacate the part of the province on the western bank of the Dnipro River. He said Russian troops would likely cede the western bank of the Dnipro to Ukraine soon.
The Kherson region, of which Russia has controlled the majority since shortly after the launch of its military campaign in Ukraine on February 24, is seen as strategically crucial, controlling both land access and much of the water supply to Crimea, which Russia supplies. annexed in 2014.
It is still the only regional capital that Russia has taken since February.
Ukraine announced a counter-offensive in Kherson in August, driving Russian troops from much of the north of the region in September.
Gene. Sergei Surovikin, the new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, has previously referred to a difficult situation in Kherson.
Putin said the partial mobilization he ordered last month had led to the summoning of 318,000 people, nearly 50,000 of whom were already in the fight, according to state news agency TASS.
The Russian leader has signed a law allowing the mobilization of people who have committed serious crimes, RIA news agency said on Friday. The law excludes those convicted of child sexual abuse, treason, espionage or terrorism, RIA said.