People from Ukraine’s southern Kherson region are expected to start arriving in Russia after a Moscow-based official in the partially occupied area suggested residents should leave for their own safety.
In a sign of Moscow’s weakening in territory it claims to have annexed, Moscow said it would help residents evacuate amid an advancing Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“The government made the decision to organize assistance for the departure of residents of the [Kherson] region,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said Thursday.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region earlier told residents to take their children and flee, after Kyiv said it had retaken five settlements in the southern region.
In a video statement on Telegram, Vladimir Saldo had publicly asked for Moscow’s help in transporting civilians to safer areas.
“Every day, cities in the Kherson region are subjected to missile attacks,” said Saldo. “As such, the leadership of the Kherson administration has decided to provide Kherson families with the option of traveling to other regions of the Russian Federation for rest and study.”
“We suggest that all residents of the Kherson region, if they wish, to protect themselves from the consequences of missile strikes… go to other regions,” he said, advising people to “leave with their children.”
Residents on the west bank of the Dnieper River had priority, he said. That includes the regional capital, the only major Ukrainian city that Russia has captured intact since its invasion on February 24.
Russia’s TASS news agency reported that a first batch of civilians fleeing Kherson was expected to arrive in Russia’s Rostov region on Friday. Others are expected to head to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
Kherson is one of four partially occupied Ukrainian provinces that Russia announced this month it had annexed, and possibly the most strategically important. It controls both the only land route to the Crimean peninsula and the mouth of the Dnieper, the giant river that bisects Ukraine.
Since early October, Ukrainian forces have broken into Russia’s front lines in their biggest advance in the south since the war began.
Since then, they have moved rapidly along the river’s western bank, aiming to cut off thousands of Russian troops from supply lines and potential retreat routes.
Kyiv says it has recaptured more than 400 square kilometers (155 miles) in the Kherson region in less than a week, with its forces moving toward the three-kilometre-long (two-mile) Nova Kakhovka dam that provides one of the last crossings. of rivers
Mykolaiv, the largest Ukrainian-controlled city closest to Kherson, came under massive Russian shelling on Thursday, with civilian facilities affected, local officials said.
Regional Governor Vitaly Kim said the top two floors of a five-story residential building were destroyed and the rest was under rubble. Video footage provided by state emergency services showed rescuers pulling out an 11-year-old boy who Kim said had spent six hours trapped under the destroyed building.
In the east, three Russian missiles exploded Thursday morning near the central market in Kupiansk, a major rail junction town that Ukrainian forces recaptured during their breakthrough there in September.
The missiles destroyed shops and littered surrounding streets with shards of glass, debris and twisted sheet metal.
On Thursday, NATO allies meeting in Brussels unveiled plans to jointly bolster Europe’s air defenses with Patriot and other missile systems.
“We live in dangerous and threatening times,” German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said at a signing ceremony in which Germany and more than a dozen European NATO members pledged to jointly acquire weapons for an “air shield”. European”.
Moscow said more military aid for Kyiv made members of the US-led military alliance “a direct party to the conflict” and said admitting Ukraine to NATO would spark a global conflict.
Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has sent a strong message to the Kremlin after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats to resort to nuclear weapons to stem mounting battlefield losses.
“Putin is saying that he is not lying. Well, you can’t afford to bluff, and it has to be clear that the people who support Ukraine and the European Union and the member states, and the United States and NATO aren’t bluffing either,” Borrell said.
“Any nuclear attack on Ukraine will create a response, not a nuclear response but such a powerful response from the military side that the Russian military will be annihilated.”