Russia’s defense minister announced on television Wednesday that he was ordering the retreat of Moscow’s forces from the strategically important southern city of Kherson, in a potentially serious blow to President Vladimir V. Putin’s war effort.
The statement, in a televised meeting with the military’s top brass, came after Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the commander for Russia’s forces in Ukraine, told Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, that the decision was “difficult” but that a withdrawal would “preserve lives of servicemen and combat readiness of forces.”
Ukraine had warned that Russia might try to feign a retreat in hopes of drawing Ukraine into urban combat.
The military had been tracking signs of a Russian retreat through Wednesday but was not convinced the Russian military intended to fully withdraw from Kherson City and the surrounding Russian bridgehead on the western bank of the Dnipro River, according to Roman Kostenko, a colonel in the army and chairman of the defense and intelligence committee in Ukraine’s Parliament.
“We have signs they are pulling out,” Colonel Kostenko said in a telephone interview. “They blew up bridges that would have allowed our forces to advance. We see them leaving population centers, but in some they leave soldiers behind to cover their movements.”
Ukrainian intelligence agencies were working to assess Russia’s movements, he said, and noted that the Russian announcement could be misdirection.
“We are watching,” Colonel Kostenko said.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, was more circumspect and said the country was not relying on “staged TV statements” from the Russians.
“Actions speak louder than words,” he wrote on Twitter. “We see no signs that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight.”
Deep anxiety about the announced withdrawal had coursed through the reports from influential Russian military bloggers throughout Wednesday.
“The decision is shocking to thousands and millions of people who are fighting for Russia, dying for Russia, believe in Russia and share the beliefs of the Russian world,” wrote Yuri Kotyonok, an influential blogger.
A retreat from the city of Kherson would be a major victory for Ukraine, which has long sought to recapture it and pushRussian troops from the western bank of the Dnipro. It is the only regional capital to fall to Russian forces since they invaded in February, and the withdrawal would also be a humiliating rout for Mr. Putin, who Western intelligence officials said had rejected earlier requests from commanders that they be allowed to pull back.
The Russian-appointed civilian administration has already fled to new headquarters east of the Dnipro, and residents have reported widespread looting by Russian forces. Kherson residents have been without power for four days, and communications have been severed.
Serhii Khlan, the exiled deputy governor of the Kherson region, said on Wednesday that conditions were growing more dire for tens of thousands of civilians. “Kherson is on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.
A Russian retreat from Kherson would have both strategic and symbolic importance. A vital Black Sea port, Kherson was the first major city to fall to Russian control, less than a week after the invasion. The city is a gateway to Crimea and provides access to Ukraine’s southern coastline for invading Russian forces.
The withdrawal would have added resonance because the city is the capital of Kherson region, one of four that Mr. Putin illegally annexed in late September, even as his troops were facing a major Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Earlier on Wednesday, before Mr. Shoigu announced the withdrawal, Russian state media reported the death of a deputy head of the occupation government in the Kherson region, Kyrylo Stremousov, who had been outspoken about Russia’s deteriorating military positions on the western bank of the river.
The Russian state news agencies Tass and RIA Novosti reported Mr. Stremousov had died in a car crash on Wednesday.
While the retreat from Kherson would provide both a military and psychological lift for Ukraine at a time when Russia has been attacking civilian targets across the country, military experts have warned that the military challenges ahead for Ukraine will only intensify as winter approaches.