Mykolaiv, Ukraine
CNN
 — 

A veil of uncertainty has descended over Ukraine’s southern front, as a counteroffensive raises hopes of further Ukrainian gains and speculation grows about what Russia’s next move might be.

There are mixed signals over Russia’s plans for the key city of Kherson, which it has occupied since the early days of the war. Some indications suggest Moscow is bracing for battle, while others point towards preparations for withdrawal.

Over the past two weeks, Kherson’s Kremlin-backed administration has broadcast dire messages about an impending Ukrainian attempt to retake the city, and ferried thousands of residents across the Dnipro River, deeper into Russian-held territory. Ukraine has accused Russia of generating “hysteria” to compel residents to leave.

Moscow has also begun to reduce the footprint of its occupation in Kherson. Ukrainian officials say the Russians are moving injured people, administrative services and financial institutions out of the city, while sending in more troops to fortify their positions.

One man still living in the city said Russia was withdrawing facilities for services like passports and pensions, and that he had seen fewer people and soldiers on the streets in recent days.

“There was a rotation and they brought in new soldiers,” the man, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told CNN on Sunday. “Some of the soldiers who were here for a while, they left and the new [ones] came. Probably they are mobilized, conscripts. They don’t even know what city they’re in.”

The Ukrainian military has observed similar Russian moves.

“They are moving their elite units and officers from the west bank (of the Dnipro River), leaving only those who are mobilized and expendable,” Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s military, said on national television on Sunday.

The start of the week was unusually quiet on the southern front. Russia launched two S-300 missiles at a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Mykolaiv on Saturday night, injuring five. But Sunday and Monday nights brought no major drone or missile strikes.

And on Tuesday, Ukraine’s military claimed Russian forces were preparing “defensive positions” along the east bank of the Dnipro – the opposite side of the river from Kherson city – and leaving small pathways for a “potential retreat” from the west bank.

“According to available information, the enemy is arranging defensive positions on the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson region,” the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in its daily operational update.

“Near the settlement of Hornostaivka, engineering and sapper units of the Russian occupation troops are laying mines along the coastline, leaving small pathways for the potential retreat of their troops from the right (western) bank,” the post continued. CNN could not confirm the Ukrainian military’s claim.

All of this has raised hopes among residents that Russia might be preparing to withdraw from the city and settle into more defensible positions further back for the difficult winter months ahead. Even vendors in the city’s market have started asking for Ukrainian hryvnia, rejecting the occupiers’ rubles and preparing for liberation, the resident told CNN.

But on Monday, the head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency poured cold water on the idea that Kherson’s liberation could be imminent, saying “they are not preparing to leave now – they are preparing to defend.”

Russia is bringing fresh troops into Kherson to fortify the city from any fresh Ukrainian offensive, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov told Ukrainian media.

“They create the illusion that everything is gone,” Budanov said. “At the same time, on the contrary, they bring new military units there and prepare the streets of the city for defense.”

On Monday night, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine had to prepare itself for a winter that “will be the most difficult in our history.”

Meanwhile, Kherson’s Russian-installed leaders said in a post on Telegram Monday that “the opportunity has been created” for any men who stayed behind in the city to join the territorial defense forces.

“Those who wanted to leave, left,” the Kherson resident told CNN. “The (Ukrainian) people who are left here, they are united, they stick together, they … try to help each other.”

When the battle for Kherson could take place is unknown. Ukrainian forces have not made major advances toward the city since early October, when Zelensky said his troops had reclaimed around 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) in their push towards the city.

As they have for weeks, Russia’s proxy leaders in Kherson insist they will defend the city.

“Everything will be just fine,” Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-backed deputy head of the region, said on Telegram Monday morning. “We are not going to surrender Kherson. The city will become a grave for many Ukrainians who forgot the history lessons.”

The sense of unease is heightened by Russia’s recent histrionics. Without providing any evidence, Moscow has accused Kyiv of planning to use a so-called dirty bomb. Western leaders have dismissed the accusation as a false flag operation which the Kremlin could use as a pretext to escalate the war.

Ukraine has also accused Russia of preparing to blow up a major dam at a hydroelectric plant upstream from Kherson. Crucially, the dam and its surrounding area are controlled by Russia, and Zelensky said his government had information suggesting Russia had mined the structure. While the flood caused by blowing up the dam would widen Russia’s defensive barrier if it withdrew, the disadvantages would far outweigh the strategic gains, Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief said. Russia in turn has accused Ukraine of planning to attack the dam.

“They will get full flooding of the east bank of the Kherson region,” Budanov said Monday. “They will lose, even theoretically, the possibility of supplying water to the North Crimean Canal, to the Crimea, until we rebuild the dam, and that will take a very long time. It will be impossible to do.”

“And the most interesting thing is that they will destroy the possibility of existence of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, because this facility is inextricably linked with it.”

Budanov still believes Kherson could be liberated by the end of the year, and that Russia is actively preparing for the possibility of withdrawing.

“They risk ending up in the same situation that our units in Mariupol found themselves in earlier,” he said. “The situation is a little different, but conceptually it will be very similar.”

“And understanding all this, they are preparing the ground so that, if necessary, they can get out of there very quickly.”

Meanwhile in Kherson, the man CNN spoke to said he and the city’s other remaining residents were stocking up on food and essentials, preparing for what could be a difficult period ahead.

“It’s our city. We believe that we have to wait until our army comes,” he said. “I can’t say we are not afraid, we are afraid – but this our decision.”

CNN’s Clarissa Ward, Maria Avdeeva, Jo Shelley, Josh Pennington and Olga Voitovych contributed to this report.


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