Russian Officials Flee Kherson as Russian Troops Dig In for a Battle

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KYIV, Ukraine — The first city to fall to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was in turmoil on Monday as its Moscow-appointed officials began fleeing across a river to safer territory, while Russian soldiers appeared to be digging in for a fight against advancing Ukrainian forces.

Government offices in Kherson have been emptied of essential equipment. Civilians have been told by proxy officials loyal to the Kremlin to take “documents, money, valuables and clothes” and evacuate, according to Ukrainian officials, videos on social media and accounts from Ukrainian activists who have spoken to residents.

And months after residents began complying with Moscow’s demands that they adopt a new currency, some merchants in Kherson had a new message for customers: No more rubles.

Within a week of invading Ukraine on Feb. 24, the Russian military had the city of Kherson, in the south, firmly in hand. And late last month, the Kremlin went even further, announcing that it had annexed the entire Kherson region and three others, even as its forces were losing ground there. President Vladimir V. Putin said they were now part of “Mother Russia,” a claim rejected by most world leaders.

Billboards around the city still declare that “Kherson is forever with Russia,” but the gap between grand pronouncement and reality on the ground is stark.

With internet and other communication services in Kherson almost completely severed, it was difficult on Monday to know exactly what was happening in the city. But the reports that seeped out added to the evidence that Russia’s civilian administration there was proceeding with plans to abandon its headquarters as Ukrainian forces continued to make hard-fought gains in their southern offensive.

Russian military forces, however, despite earlier reports that their leaders had sought permission to reposition to the east bank of the Dnipro River, appeared to be staying put.

“They are not preparing to exit now,” Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, said in an interview with a Ukrainian news outlet, Ukrainska Pravda, that was published on Monday. “They are preparing to defend.”

The evacuation orders for civilians, he said, suggested that Moscow could be readying the city for urban combat.

“They are creating the illusion that everything has gone,” General Budanov said. “At the same time, on the contrary, they are bringing in new military units there and preparing the streets of the city for defense.”

The loss of Kherson would be a severe military and symbolic blow for Mr. Putin, who has rejected requests from his commanders on the ground that they be allowed to retreat from the city. Located on the west bank of the Dnipro River, Kherson is a gateway to both Russian-held Crimea in the south and Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to the west, including Odesa.

Over the weekend, local leaders loyal to the Kremlin said that “all departments and ministries of civil administration” must be moved across the Dnipro. Occupation officials also said they would relocate as many as 60,000 civilians.

Moscow claims that as many as 20,000 people have fled, but Ukrainian officials put the figure at closer to 1,000 and say that most are pro-Kremlin collaborators.

Serhii Khlan, the exiled deputy governor of the Kherson region, said Moscow’s forces and local proxies were engaged in “intense pillaging,” stealing “everything with archaeological and historical significance.” While his claims could not be independently verified, looting by Russian forces in other parts of the country has been widely documented.

Kyiv has imposed a blackout on detailed information about its southern offensive, but the Ukrainian military’s southern command said Monday that since it launched its counteroffensive at the end of August, its forces have retaken 90 towns and villages where more than 12,000 people were still living.

The military campaign has been aided by weaponry provided by the United States and other Western countries, increasing tensions with Moscow.

On Monday, the most senior military commanders for both the United States and Russia spoke by telephone, continuing a flurry of high-level talks between Moscow and NATO allies as Russia continued to fan fears of nuclear escalation in Ukraine. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Pentagon officials said.

“The military leaders discussed several security-related issues of concern and agreed to keep the lines of communication open,” General Milley’s spokesman, Col. Dave Butler, said in an emailed statement.

In recent days, Western officials have been concerned by Russian unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is planning to use a so-called dirty bomb on its own territory. A dirty bomb uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material.

Over the weekend, the top diplomats in France, Britain and the United States, three of Ukraine’s strongest allies, issued a rare joint statement that rejected the claim, calling it a pretext Moscow has concocted for escalating the war.

In the statement, the three governments confirmed that their defense ministers had each spoken with their Russian counterpart, Sergei K. Shoigu, and rejected “Russia’s transparently false allegations.”

Russia has not publicly offered evidence to back up the dirty bomb accusations, and Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, called them “lies.”

Russian officials were vilifying Ukrainians and their leaders even before the invasion, presumably to lay the groundwork for public support, but on Monday it appeared that even in Russia there are limits.

On Monday, a Russian talk show host apologized after he was suspended by a state broadcaster viewed by many as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin, for suggesting that Ukrainian children should be drowned or burned in their homes.

“I apologize to everyone who was stunned by this,” said the host, Anton Krasovsky, a director of broadcasting for RT.

“It was just tasteless,” Mr. Krasovsky said in two statements posted to Telegram, calling the comments he made last week “wild and unthinkable.”

Marc Santorareported from Kyiv, and Eric Nagourney from New York. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington, and Cora Engelbrecht from London.


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