Russia’s announcement this week that it was retreating from parts of the Kherson region has been cast in doubt, as events have been obfuscated by the fog of war and concern rose in Kyiv that the Kremlin might be bluffing in an effort to draw Ukrainian troops into a trap.
But on Thursday, Ukrainian officials said that Russian troops were indeed withdrawing from some areas they had controlled along the front line in southern Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky said dozens of towns and villages had been retaken.
Ukraine’s military also said it had recaptured 100 square miles in the past 24 hours.
“The number of Ukrainian flags returning to their rightful place within the framework of the ongoing defense operation is already dozens,” Mr. Zelensky said in his nightly address, citing 41 towns and villages. “Everything that is happening now has been achieved by months of brutal struggle. It was achieved through courage, pain and loss.”
The Russian pullback from the expanse of farmland on the western bank of the Dnipro River could be a pivot point in the war, a serious psychological and military blow to the military efforts of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The Ukrainian military, fighting a scrappy and underdog defense for eight months, has forced the Russians into three major retreats: from north of the capital, Kyiv, last spring; from the northeastern Kharkiv region in late summer; and now from at least portions of the western bank of the Dnipro River in the south.
Mr. Zelensky’s government is hoping the against-the-odds battlefield wins will quiet criticism of generous military aid for Ukraine among some members of the U.S. Congress. Ukrainian officials have also declared conditions for discussing a cease-fire with Russia, including the requirement that Russia remove its troops from Ukraine’s land.
Even as Russian troops fall back in Kherson region, it remains a possibility that they will vacate rural areas but retrench to defend the provincial capital, Kherson.
Military analysts have cautioned that Russia could also retaliate by escalating its missile and drone bombardments of cities in a campaign to demoralize Ukrainians by blacking out electrical power. Already, drone and missile strikes have cut power to 4.5 million people.
But out in the expanse of farmland in southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military has been reaping rewards of a methodical, monthslong strategy of shelling behind the Russian front lines, targeting bridges the Russian army had used to supply troops on the Dnipro’s western bank.
Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, the commander of the Ukrainian military, scoffed at the Russian’s announced retreat, suggesting in a Facebook post on Thursday that it was a voluntary strategic maneuver intended to save its soldiers lives. “The enemy was left with no other option but to resort to fleeing,” he wrote.
The Ukrainians’ systematic shelling of the bridges and ferry crossings around Kherson, military analysts said, has choked off avenues of retreat, especially for such a large contingent of troops.
In other towns and villages, there were signs of Russia’s withdrawal. A case in point is the southern town of Snihurivka, an important road hub north of Kherson City, where several thousand Russian troops have emptied out of the town in the past few days. Still, signs of a harsh occupation followed by an unraveling of Russian control in the final weeks lingered in the town.
A message posted on a notice board beside a department store read, “Curfew from 6 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Violators will be shot.”