Ukraine capable of retaking Kherson from Russia -Pentagon chief

WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces could recapture the strategic southern city of Kherson from Russian forces, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday, in what would be a major setback for Russia in its invasion of its neighbor.

Austin’s comments came as a Russian-based official in the Kherson region said Moscow would likely withdraw troops from the west bank of the Dnieper River, which would represent a significant withdrawal if confirmed.

Ukraine said it was still fighting in the region and was wary of Russian occupation forces setting traps.

Austin did not respond to a question about whether Russian forces were ready to withdraw. But, in perhaps his most optimistic comments about the Ukrainian counteroffensive, he expressed confidence in their ability to defeat Russian forces.

“As for whether the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory west of the Dnieper River and in Kherson, I certainly believe they have the ability to do that,” Austin said at a Pentagon news conference.

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Above all, Ukrainians believe they can do it. “We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to reclaim their sovereign territory.”

The regional capital and port on the Kherson River is the only major city Russia has captured intact since its invasion on February 24.

The area the Ukrainians are seeking to retake on the west bank of the river also includes one side of a massive dam across the Dnieper that controls the water supply for irrigating Crimea, a peninsula Russia has occupied since 2014.

A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, assessed that Russia was planning to withdraw its bridgehead on the west side of the river to the east, where it could better defend its forces.

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“We think the planning is pretty much advanced,” the official said.

The official said that some Russian military commanders were stationed across the river.

“We assess that in Kherson, it is likely that most of the command echelons have already retreated across the river to the east, and in some cases, the forces are completely weakened and often in some cases leaderless,” the Western official said. On the other hand, the Ukrainians have remained on the other side.

Russia has been fighting for months to cling to the pocket of land it holds on the west bank at the mouth of the Dnieper River, which bisects Ukraine. Moscow had sent tens of thousands of troops to reinforce this area, one of the biggest priorities on the battlefield.

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Ukraine has targeted key river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply its massive force on the west bank. Ukrainian forces have been advancing along the river since they broke through the Russian front line at the beginning of October, although their progress has been slowed.

Report by Phil Stewart, Idris Ali and Rami Ayyub; Edited by Chris Rees and Grant McCool

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Idris Ali

Thomson Reuters

Focusing on the Pentagon in Washington, DC, the National Security Correspondent reports on US military activities and operations around the world and their impact. He has reported from more than two dozen countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and many of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. From Karachi, Pakistan

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