In televised comments, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he was ordering the withdrawal of troops across the Dnieper River, according to Reuters. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, said he had proposed taking up defensive lines on the eastern bank of the river.
The announcement of the withdrawal followed weeks of Ukrainian advances toward the city and a race by Russia to relocate more than 100,000 of its residents.
“We will save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right (western) bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts,” Surovikin said.
The announcement came after Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were deliberately blowing up bridges around the city.
“The occupiers are currently undermining absolutely all the bridges on the right bank of the Kherson region,” Serhii Khlan, the deputy head of Kherson’s regional council, said in a Telegram post.
Ukrainian and Russian forces clashed overnight in the town Snihurivka, around 30 miles north of Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy civilian administrator of the Kherson region, said in a post on his Telegram channel.
Stremousov died Wednesday in a road accident, the head of the Moscow-appointed regional administration, Vladimir Saldo, said in a post on Telegram.
Stremousov had posted regular video updates on social media — including while in vehicles moving at high speed — about the situation on the front line.
Russia has fought for months to hang on to the pocket of land it holds on the west bank of the river that bisects Ukraine, as well as Kherson, the only major Ukrainian city that Russian forces have captured intact since the invasion began Feb. 24.
Moscow declared at the end of September that it had annexed Kherson, along with the Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzia regions after staging referendums that were denounced by Kyiv and the West as illegal and rigged.
And it has poured in tens of thousands of troops as reinforcements in the region, which is also home to the huge Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper. The dam holds back an enormous reservoir and controls the water supply to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
However, late last month, Russian-installed authorities ordered residents to leave the city, saying in a statement on their Telegram channel that they should board boats across the Dnieper river. They added that all departments and ministries of the Kremlin-installed administration should also evacuate to escape advancing Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian military has targeted the main river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply forces on the river’s west bank. Since bursting through the Russian front line at the start of October, the Ukrainians have advanced down the river.
Henry Austin is a London-based editor for NBC News Digital.