KYIV, Ukraine — Russian occupation officials were moving civilians out of Kherson on Wednesday, another sign that Moscow’s hold on the strategic southern Ukrainian city was slipping, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sought to reassert control over that and other occupied regions by declaring martial law.
The move by Mr. Putin was an effort to tighten the Kremlin’s authority over Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions he recently claimed to annex, even as his army loses ground in those areas to Ukrainian forces and as Western allies dismiss the annexations as illegal.
As Russian proxy officials in Kherson said they would move as many as 60,000 civilians to the eastern side of the Dnipro River and shift its civilian administration there, they appeared to be girding for a battle for control of the region. Amid a weekslong Ukrainian counteroffensive, the pro-Kremlin leader in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said the relocations would protect civilians and help Russian forces fortify defenses to “repel any attack.”
Ukrainian officials dismissed the plans as “a propaganda show.” Andriy Yermak, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, accused the Russian proxies of scaring civilians with claims that Ukraine would shell the city. He called it “a rather primitive tactic, given that the armed forces do not fire at Ukrainian cities — this is done exclusively by Russian terrorists.”
Ukrainian forces have been advancing gradually for weeks along both sides of the river in Kherson, a region that Moscow seized early in the war and has declared part of Russia. Since late August, Ukrainian troops have damaged bridges near the city of Kherson, making it harder for Moscow to resupply the thousands of troops it has stationed there.
Western analysts have suggested that the Russian positions in and around the city are untenable without the bridges, and U.S. officials have said that Russian commanders have urged a retreat from Kherson, only to be overruled by Mr. Putin. But Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the Kherson region has moved more slowly than its recent advances in the east, and it was far from clear whether its forces could soon mount a push to retake the city of Kherson.
On Tuesday, the general Mr. Putin appointed earlier this month to command the war in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, said he was ready to make “difficult decisions” about the military deployments in the Kherson region, without specifying what those decisions would entail.
Ukrainian officials have greeted the hints of a Russian pullback of at least civil administrators with caution, saying the announcements could be intended for internal Russian audiences, signaling commitment to protecting civilians or preparation for a Russian military action in the area. Videos released on Russian media showed lines of civilians apparently boarding ferries at a river port to evacuate to the eastern bank of the Dnipro.
The Kherson region spans both banks of the river, with the city of Kherson, the regional capital, lying on the western side. The western bank is an expanse of pancake-flat farmland crisscrossed by rivers and irrigation canals, and one of the most pivotal battlefields of the war.
Ukrainian troops had through the summer whittled away at Russian supply lines by firing American-provided precision guided rockets at the four bridges over the Dnipro River in areas Russia controls. All are now mostly destroyed.
In late August, Ukraine opened an offensive with ground troops, advancing in bloody, slow-moving combat through several dozen villages while driving the Russian forces backward, toward the Dnipro. The Russian announcements of evacuating civilians and the civil administration could signal a faltering of military defenses, presaging a Russian pullback from the western bank of the Dnipro River in what would be a major setback for Moscow — but could also be a ruse.
Mr. Saldo, a Ukrainian politician who had switched sides at the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, told the Russian state news agency RIA on Wednesday that all ministries would evacuate to the eastern bank. The occupation government earlier on Wednesday said it would evacuate from 50,000 to 60,000 civilians across the river and onward to the occupied peninsula of Crimea or into Russia. Residents risked artillery fire from the Ukrainian Army or flooding from the destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam on the Dnipro River, Mr. Saldo said.
Oct. 19, 2022
An earlier version of this article misidentified the location that Russian proxy officials in Kherson, Ukraine, said they would move as many as 60,000 civilians to. It is the eastern side of the Dnipro River, not the western side.