WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces could 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 invasion of its neighbor.
Austin’s remarks coincided with a Russian official in Kherson region saying Moscow would likely withdraw troops from the west bank of the Dnieper River, signaling a significant retreat if confirmed.
Ukraine said it was still fighting in the area and was wary of occupying Russian forces laying a trap.
Austin did not respond to a question about whether Russian forces were preparing to leave. But in perhaps his most optimistic comments yet about the Ukrainian counteroffensive, he expressed confidence in their ability to repel Russian forces.
“On the question of whether the Ukrainians can take the rest of the 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.
“The most important thing is that Ukrainians believe that they have the ability to do this. We have seen them engage in very methodical but effective efforts to reclaim sovereign territory.”
The regional capital and river port of Kherson is the only major city that Russia has captured intact since its invasion began on February 24.
The area Ukrainians want to reclaim on the west bank of the river also includes one side of a huge dam across the Dnieper that controls the irrigation water supply to Crimea, the peninsula Russia has occupied since 2014.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated that Russia plans to withdraw from their outpost on the west bank of the river to the east bank, where it can better defend its forces.
“We believe this planning is almost certainly advanced,” the official said.
The official said some Russian military commanders had re-based themselves across the river.
“We would estimate that at Kherson it is likely that most echelons of command have withdrawn across the river to the east, leaving quite demoralized and often in some cases leaderless troops to face the Ukrainians on the other side,” the Western official said.
Russia has been fighting for months to hold on to the pocket of land it holds on the west bank at the mouth of the Dnieper River, which bisects Ukraine. Moscow has sent tens of thousands of troops to reinforce the area, one of its top battlefield priorities.
Ukraine has been targeting key river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply its massive forces on the west bank. Ukrainian troops have been advancing along the river since breaking through the Russian front line in early October, although their progress has slowed.
Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idreis Ali and Rami Ayub; Editing by Chris Rees and Grant McCool
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