Russia said Thursday its forces would help evacuate residents of occupied Kherson to other areas, as Kyiv continued to make gains in its offensive to retake the southern Ukrainian region.
The announcement by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin came shortly after the head of the Moscow-backed administration in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, appealed to the Kremlin for help moving residents out of harm’s way, in the latest indication that Russian forces were struggling in the face of Ukrainian advances.
The Ukrainian military has been carrying out a counteroffensive in Kherson and eastern parts of the country, taking back territory that had been occupied by Russia as well as striking critical infrastructure such as bridges and railways.
Saldo claimed cities throughout Kherson, one of four Ukrainian regions Russia claimed to have annexed in violation of international law, were being hammered by dangerous airstrikes.
Saldo said local Russian leadership had “decided to organize the possibility of Kherson families traveling to other regions of the Russian Federation.”
“We suggested that all residents of the Kherson region, if there is such a wish, to protect themselves from the consequences of missile strikes, should go to other regions … to take their children and leave.”
Fighting in Kherson has intensified in recent weeks, as Kyiv pushes ahead with its goal to take back parts of the region Russia seized in the early days of the invasion. US and Ukrainian officials said last month that they hoped to retake all of Kherson by the end of the year.
As of last week, Ukraine said it had recaptured 2,400 square kilometers (927 square miles) in Kherson previously under Russian control. Authorities in Kyiv said Wednesday that it had liberated five more small, rural villages as the Ukrainian military pushes further southwest.
With Ukrainian forces barreling forward, Saldo appealed to Russian leaders to help local Russian-backed officials move civilians.
“We, residents of the Kherson region, of course, know that Russia does not abandon its own people,” Saldo said.
However, Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Kherson region’s military administration, said that the civilian transports were not an “evacuation.”
“There is no evacuation in the Kherson region and there cannot be any,” he said.
Stremousov has been openly critical of the war’s decision-makers in Moscow and on the battlefield. Last week, he blamed the military setbacks in Kherson on “incompetent commanders” who have not been held accountable for their mistakes.
On Thursday, Stremousov insisted that Saldo was only requesting that authorities “help organize the departure of residents of the Kherson region for temporary stay and rest in other regions of the Russian Federation.”
“We urge the residents of the Kherson region to remain calm and to not panic. Nobody is going to withdraw Russian troops from the Kherson region,” Stremousov said. “This is not an evacuation, this is an opportunity to save lives.”