The Russian flag has been taken down from administrative buildings. Russian checkpoints have been abandoned. The Kremlin-appointed occupation government has fled and civilians say that essential services have stopped working.
The events of recent days in Kherson have fueled speculation about what is happening in the key city in southern Ukraine. Is the apparent pullback of Russia’s presence a prelude to a full withdrawal by Moscow’s forces, or a trap to lure Ukrainian troops into an ambush?
Amid spotty communications, unverified claims by Russian officials and limited information coming from Ukraine’s military, here is some of what is known about Kherson and why control of the city matters.
The loss of Kherson would be a major blow to the Kremlin.
When Russian forces stormed across the Antonivsky Bridge over the Dnipro River and into Kherson City in March, it marked their biggest success of the early days of the war. Eight months later, the city, a former shipbuilding center, is the only provincial capital that they have seized.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had hoped to use the wider Kherson region as a bridgehead for a drive farther west, to the port city of Odesa, but that failed. Still, last month, he announced that Russia had annexed all of the Kherson region and three other occupied Ukrainian territories, in a move that was widely denounced as illegal.
If the Russian forces are driven from Kherson City and across the river, it would represent a deep symbolic blow for the Kremlin, and its ambition to conquer all of southern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military has gradually moved to isolate Russian forces in Kherson.
Kherson is vulnerable because it is the only land that Moscow controls west of the Dnipro River, which bisects Ukraine. In late summer, armed with longer-range Western weapons, Ukraine began a coordinated campaign to isolate Russian forces west of the river, bombarding the bridges that Moscow used to resupply its forces in the city. At the same time, Ukrainian armored and infantry divisions began a grueling advance toward the city from the north, west and south.
But the region’s wide-open fields, crisscrossed by irrigation canals that make for excellent defensive positions, have slowed the Ukrainian approach, and the arrival of fall has turned much of the ground to mud. Analysts say that Russia has dispatched some of its most seasoned fighters to the region and stockpiled ammunition and other supplies. According to Ukrainian estimates, as many as 40,000 Russian troops are still holding defensive lines west of the river.
If Russia fights to hold the city, it could be a brutal urban battle.
Kherson residents say that, despite the withdrawal of checkpoints, there is no evidence of a withdrawal of Russian forces. If Moscow chooses to defend the city, military experts say it could be a bloody, street-by-street battle.
Ukrainian forces are still far from the city limits, and are reportedly facing stiff resistance as they battle Russian troops north of a dam at Nova Kakhovka, which lies 50 miles upriver.
Both sides have issued public statements signaling a battle ahead. A pro-Russian proxy leader in Kherson said over the weekend that Ukraine was massing artillery, planes and helicopters in preparation for the next stage of its assault on the region. Top officials in Kyiv have said that Moscow might be trying to create the illusion that its forces are leaving Kherson to draw Ukrainians into a fight.
Conditions are growing more dire for civilians.
Before Russia’s invasion, Kherson’s population stood at more than 250,000. Ukrainian activists estimate that 30,000 to 60,000 people remain in the city, but it is difficult to know the real number.
Last month, the occupation authorities announced that they would relocate tens of thousands of civilians from the west side of the river to territory held more firmly by Russia. Ukrainian officials and residents said that was a pretext for forced deportations.
For those who remain, life is growing more bleak. On Monday, residents reported that Russians were cutting power supplies and drinking water not only to Kherson City but also to towns and villages all along the western bank of the river.