Russia on Thursday said 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, asked the Kremlin for help to move residents out of harm’s way, in the latest indication that the Russian Armed forces in the US had to face the Ukrainian advances.
The Ukrainian military has launched a counter-offensive in Kherson and the eastern parts of the country, retaking Russian-held areas and attacking critical infrastructure such as bridges and railways.
Saldo claimed cities across Kherson, one of four Ukrainian regions Russia allegedly annexed in violation of international law, were being hit by dangerous airstrikes.
Saldo said the local Russian leadership “decided to organize the possibility for Kherson families to travel to other regions of the Russian Federation.”
“We suggested that all residents of the Kherson region, if there is such a desire to protect themselves from the consequences of rocket attacks, should go to other regions … to pick up their children and leave.”
Fighting in Kherson has intensified in recent weeks as Kyiv advances its goal of retaking parts of the region that Russia seized in the early days of the invasion. US and Ukrainian officials said last month they hoped to retake all of Kherson by the end of the year.
Last week Ukraine said it had retaken 2,400 square kilometers (927 sq mi) in Kherson previously under Russian control. Authorities in Kyiv said on Wednesday they had liberated five more small, rural villages as the Ukrainian military advanced further southwest.
As Ukrainian forces charged forward, Saldo appealed to Russian leaders to help Russian-backed local officials move civilians.
“Of course, we, the residents of the Kherson region, know that Russia does not abandon its own people,” Saldo said.
However, Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the military administration of the Kherson region, said that the civilian transports were not an “evacuation”.
“There is no evacuation in the Kherson region and there cannot be,” he said.
Stremousov openly criticized the decision-makers of the war in Moscow and on the battlefield. Last week he blamed the military setbacks in Kherson on “incompetent commanders” who were not held accountable for their mistakes.
On Thursday, Stremousov insisted that Saldo only asked that the 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 residents of the Kherson region to remain calm and not to panic. No one will withdraw Russian troops from the Kherson region,” Stremousov said. “This is not an evacuation, this is an opportunity to save lives.”