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What Russia's announced pullout from Kherson means for the war in Ukraine

Ukrainian Armed Forces in a tank heading toward the Kherson front in Kherson region on Wednesday.
Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ukrainian Armed Forces in a tank heading toward the Kherson front in Kherson region on Wednesday.

DINPRO, Ukraine — Since Russia said its troops were pulling out of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, Ukraine and its Western backers have been cautiously welcoming what could be a major setback for Moscow's invasion.

But 8 1/2 months in, officials and military analysts say the war is far from over, and Ukrainian and Russian forces are likely to continue fighting through the winter.

For weeks, Ukrainian forces have been advancing on Kherson — the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russia managed to take over since its invasion in February.

Russian defense chiefs said Wednesday they were pulling back their troops to the east bank of the Dnipro River, to save the lives of soldiers and civilians. The world is watching to see if Russian forces actually retreat.

The top U.S. military officer says a withdrawal has already begun.

"Right now, the early indicators are they're doing what they say they're doing and we're seeing those early indicators," Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday at The Economic Club of New York.

"I believe they're doing it in order to preserve their force, to reestablish defensive lines south of the river, but that remains to be seen."

Here is a look at what this latest move in more than eight months of war means.

Russia's war is going poorly

The announced withdrawal from Kherson comes after Russian troops were rapidly driven out of the Kharkiv region two months ago. The loss of Kherson would leave Russia with few territorial gains since its Feb. 24 invasion. The military campaign failed in its initial strategic objective of replacing the government in Kyiv with one friendlier to Moscow. Russia only managed to seize Mariupol by destroying it. Gen. Milley called the Russian invasion a "tremendous strategic mistake."

Humanitarian aid is distributed in Balakliya following the retreat of Russian troops from Ukraine's Kharkiv region, on Sept. 11.
/ Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Humanitarian aid is distributed in Balakliya following the retreat of Russian troops from Ukraine's Kharkiv region, on Sept. 11.

He says the U.S. believes more than 100,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded so far in the war. He added that the casualties on the Ukrainian side are probably similar. Neither Russia or Ukraine have disclosed their exact casualty numbers.

Milley estimates that the withdrawal of approximately 30,000 Russian soldiers stationed in and around Kherson will take weeks. This week, Ukrainian forces blew up the only road bridge linking the city to the east bank of the Dnipro.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he welcomed the withdrawal from Kherson but is waiting to see what actually happens on the ground.

"It is encouraging to see how the brave Ukrainian forces are able to liberate more Ukrainian territory, the victories, the gains the Ukrainian armed forces are making belongs to the brave, courageous Ukrainian soldiers," Stoltenberg said as he left a meeting with new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

"But of course the support they receive from the United Kingdom, from NATO allies and partners is also essential," he added, vowing that support will continue.

President Biden remarked on Moscow's announcement, telling reporters it shows the Russian military's having "some real problems."

But he added, "It will lead to time for everyone to recalibrate their positions over the winter period. And it remains to be seen whether or not there'll be a judgment made as to whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia."

The fight for Kherson, and the rest of Ukraine, is far from over

Even as Russia announces this withdrawal, satellite imagery shows Russian forces digging extensive trenches and other fortifications further east in the Kherson region, open source intelligence analysts say.

A commander from the Ukrainian 63rd brigade debriefs following a military training in Mykolaiv on Wednesday, in preparation for a counteroffensive to recapture Kherson.
/ Ashley Chan/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
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Ashley Chan/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
A commander from the Ukrainian 63rd brigade debriefs following a military training in Mykolaiv on Wednesday, in preparation for a counteroffensive to recapture Kherson.

The order from Moscow is also only to pull back to the east bank of the Dnipro River. After the early stages of the war when Russia attempted to overrun areas with tanks and infantry, this conflict has been dominated by artillery. Even after Russian troops withdraw to the opposite bank of the river, they will still be able to fire mortars across the water if Ukrainian forces try to take up positions inside the city itself.

Western military analysts say Russia is very concerned about Ukraine pushing much farther east into the Kherson region, as Russian supply lines from Crimea would then be vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery attacks.

And even as Russia is pulling back on the southern front, fierce battles continue around Donetsk in the east. Ukrainian military officials claim to be killing hundreds of Russian troops per day, primarily in the fighting in the eastern Donbas region. On Wednesday, the Armed Forces of Ukraine said it had "liquidated" 740 troops over a 24-hour period. Those casualty numbers haven't been independently verified.

It's a morale boost for Ukraine

For months, Russia has been steadily losing territory that it seized early in the war. That includes major Ukrainian victories retaking the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Kherson is one more major city that's slipping out of Moscow's control.

From a Ukrainian perspective, it's significant that this is happening before winter. Ukrainian officials have voiced concern about the difficulties of carrying out an offensive in the snow.

They are being cautious about the announced retreat, saying they'll believe this move when they actually see it.

But Ukrainians took to social media to celebrate the Kherson withdrawal as another significant win and evidence that the war is moving in the right direction for Ukraine.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.