Ukraine capable of retaking Kherson from Russia -Pentagon chief

WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces can retake the strategic southern city of Kherson from Russian troops, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday, in what would be a major defeat for Russia in its invasion of its neighbor.

Austin’s remarks coincided with a Russian-installed official in the Kherson region who said Moscow was likely to withdraw its troops from the west bank of the Dnieper River, signaling a significant withdrawal, if confirmed.

Ukraine has said it is still fighting in the area and is wary of a trap by occupying Russian forces.

Austin did not respond to a question about whether Russian forces were preparing to leave. But in perhaps his most optimistic comments yet about the Ukrainian counteroffensive, he expressed confidence in their ability to defeat Russian forces.

“On the question of whether the Ukrainians can take the remaining territory on the west side of the Dnieper River and in Kherson, I certainly believe they have the ability to do that,” Austin said at a Pentagon news conference.

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“Most importantly, Ukrainians believe they have the ability to do it. We have seen them engage in very methodical but effective efforts to reclaim their sovereign territory.

The regional capital and river port of Kherson is the only major city that Russia has captured intact since its invasion began on February 24.

The area Ukrainians are seeking to reclaim on the west bank of the river also includes one side of a huge dam across the Dnieper that controls the irrigation water supply to Crimea, a peninsula Russia has occupied since 2014.

A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia plans to withdraw from their bridge from the west side of the river to the east side, where it can better defend its forces.

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“We think that planning is almost certainly well advanced,” the official said.

The official said some Russian military commanders had moved to the other side of the river.

“We would estimate that in Kherson, it is likely that most echelons of command have now withdrawn across the river to the east, leaving fairly demoralized and often in some cases leaderless troops to face the Ukrainians on the other side,” the Western official said.

Russia has been fighting for months to hang on to the pocket of land it holds on the west bank of the Dnieper River estuary that bisects Ukraine. Moscow has sent tens of thousands of troops to reinforce the area, one of its top battlefield priorities.

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Ukraine has been targeting major river crossings for months, making it difficult for Russia to supply its massive force on the west coast. Ukrainian troops are advancing along the river after breaking through the Russian front line in early October, although their advance has slowed.

Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idris Ali and Rami Ayoub; Editing by Chris Rees and Grant McCool

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Idris Ali

Thomson Reuters

National security correspondent focused on the Pentagon in Washington Reports on US military activity and operations around the world and the impact they are having. It has reported from over two dozen countries that include Iraq, Afghanistan and much of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. From Karachi, Pakistan.

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