Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday ordered Russian troops to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro River in the face of Ukrainian attacks near the southern city of Kherson.
The announcement marks one of Russia's most significant retreats and a potential turning point in the war, now nearing the end of its ninth month. But it has brought a sceptical response from Ukraine's government.
Shoigu said on television that he would "proceed with the withdrawal of the soldiers" after a proposal by the commander of Russian operations in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin.
Surovikin, in overall command of the war, also appeared on TV. He acknowledged that it was "not at all an easy decision" to make but explained that it was no longer possible to supply Kherson city.
He said he proposed to take up defensive lines on the eastern bank of the river. "We will save the lives of our soldiers and fighting capacity of our units. Keeping them on the right (western) bank is futile. Some of them can be used on other fronts," Surovikin said.
Kyiv reacts cautiously
A senior adviser to Ukraine’s president said on Wednesday that Kyiv saw "no sign" at this stage of Russian forces withdrawing from Kherson.
"We see no sign that Russia is leaving Kherson without a fight. Some Russian (troops) are still in the southern Ukrainian city," said presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, blasting "staged TV statements" by Moscow.
"Until the Ukrainian flag is flying over Kherson, it makes no sense to talk about a Russian withdrawal," he told Reuters previously.
Earlier, the main bridge on a road out of Kherson city was blown up.
Photos on the internet showed the span of the Darivka bridge on the main highway east out of Kherson completely collapsed into the water of the Inhulets River, a tributary of the Dnipro River. Reuters verified the location of the images.
The news followed weeks of Ukrainian advances towards the city.
Before launching its ground offensive in the north of the Kherson region at the end of the summer, Ukrainian forces disabled key bridges for the supply of Russian forces, thanks in particular to arms delivered by the West, in particular American HIMARS rocket systems.
The Kremlin-installed authorities have been racing to relocate more than 100,000 of the residents who remained in the area after Russia's occupation in the early days of the full-scale invasion.
Moscow says it has been "evacuating" civilians, but Kyiv has described the population transfers from the right bank of the Dnipro as "deportations".
Kherson a strategic prize
Kherson is the only regional capital Russian forces had seized during the eight-month war. The announcement of the withdrawal follows a Russian troop pullout from the Kharkiv region in September.
It comes just over a month after Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed annexation of Kherson and three other regions of Ukraine -- Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. Moscow considers all these areas as its sovereign territory.
The Kherson region is all the more strategic as its territory borders Crimea. It provides Moscow with a land bridge to the Black Sea peninsula that it seized from Kyiv in 2014.
Ukraine retaking swathes of the Kherson region would deprive Moscow of that land corridor. It would also bring long-range Ukrainian artillery closer to Crimea, which Moscow sees as vitally important to its interests.
The announcement had been anticipated by Russia's influential war bloggers, who described it as a bitter blow.
"Apparently we will leave the city, no matter how painful it is to write about it now," said the War Gonzo blog, which has more than 1.3 million subscribers on Telegram.
"In simple terms, Kherson can't be held with bare hands," it said. "Yes, this is a black page in the history of the Russian army. Of the Russian state. A tragic page."
On Tuesday night, a Ukrainian military statement accused Russian troops of continuing to loot and destroy infrastructure in Kherson.
Analyst: 'A major development in the war'
"This is a major development in the war. It will liberate or free-up approximately 4.000 square kilometres of territory," Peter Dickinson, Ukraine Editor at the Atlantic Council, told Euronews.
The withdrawal is the consequence of Russian forces in the area gradually finding themselves more isolated, he explained.
"Ukraine’s tactics for some months now have been essentially to blockade the Russian troops there, to cut them off from resupply by bombing and destroying the bridges over the Dnipro river -- upon which they depended for their resupply."
"From a strategic point of view, it means an end to Russia’s ambitions to move further along the coast towards Odesa, which is Ukraine’s perhaps second most-important city after Kyiv and the country’s main port," Dickinson said.
The symbolic value of the pullout from Kherson will be a morale booster for Kyiv -- and create further uneasiness about the war in Moscow, he believes.
"I think there will be a lot questions asked now (in Russia) about the conduct of the war and the way it’s been handled. This is the latest in a series of defeats and perhaps the most humiliating of all."