WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces may retake the strategic southern city of Kherson from Russian troops, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday, in what would be a major defeat for Russia in its offensive against its neighbor.
Austin’s comments were consistent with a Russian official stationed in the Kherson region saying Moscow could potentially withdraw troops from the western bank of the Dnipro River, a significant retreat if confirmed. will indicate.
Ukraine said it was still fighting in the area and was wary of entrapment by occupying Russian forces.
Austin did not respond to a question about whether Russian forces were preparing to withdraw. But, in perhaps his most optimistic comments yet on the Ukrainian response, expressed confidence in their ability to defeat Russian forces.
“On the issue of whether the Ukrainians can take the rest of the territory on the west bank of the Dnipro River and in Kherson, I believe they have the ability to do that,” Austin told a news conference at the Pentagon.
“The bottom line is that the Ukrainians believe they have the ability to do this. We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to take back their sovereign territory.”
The regional capital and river port of Kherson is the only major city Russia has retained since the offensive began on February 24.
The territory the Ukrainians are trying to reclaim on the west bank of the river includes one side of a huge dam across the Dnipro that controls the water supply to irrigate Crimea, the peninsula. Russia has occupied it since 2014.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated that Russia was planning to withdraw from its bridgehead on the west bank of the river to the east, where it could better defend its forces.
“We think the planning is definitely well advanced,” the official said.
Some Russian military commanders had returned to the other side of the river, the official said.
“We would estimate that at Kherson, it is likely that most of the command’s forces have now retreated across the river to the east, much to the dismay and often in some cases to no avail,” the Western official said. The leadership troops face the Ukrainians on the other side.”
Russia has been fighting for months to retain a pocket of land on its western bank at the mouth of the Dnipro River that separates Ukraine. Moscow has sent tens of thousands of troops to fortify the region, one of its top battlefield priorities.
Ukraine has targeted key river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to deliver its heavy forces to the west bank. Ukrainian troops have been advancing along the river since crossing the Russian front line in early October, although their advance has slowed.
Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idris Ali and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Chris Reese and Grant McCool
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