Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged Ukrainians to “be restrained” and cautious following the Russian order to withdraw troops from the key southern city of Kherson.
In his nightly address, the Ukrainian president warned that the “enemy does not bring us gifts” and suggested that Moscow’s retreat from Kherson could be a ruse to lure Ukrainian forces to advance into a battle in the strategically important city.
On Wednesday, Russia’s top commander in Ukraine said troops had been ordered to withdraw from Kherson as it was no longer possible to maintain supplies to the city.
Mr Zelenskyy said: “There is a lot of joy in the media space today, and it is clear why. But our emotions must be restrained – always during war.
“But you need to understand: no one just gets away if they don’t feel the strength. The enemy does not bring us gifts, does not make ‘gestures of goodwill’. We fight our way up.”
The regional capital was seized by Russia early in the war and if confirmed, the withdrawal from Kherson will mark one of Moscow’s most significant retreats.
However, other Ukrainian officials and Western allies have also cast doubt over the intentions behind Moscow’s announcement and what it could mean.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Kyiv does not see “any signs that Russia is completely leaving the city” and said these statements “may be disinformation”.
Kherson is a prime objective for both Moscow and Kyiv because of its major river and seaport – it is also a gateway to the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.
Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, said Kherson should be watched “very carefully”, adding that the withdrawal could be part of a genuine desire to regroup – or a ruse to encourage the Ukrainians to advance.
The Russians are “masters of deception and camouflage,” he added.
NATO’s chief has also warned that Moscow cannot be underestimated. Jens Stoltenberg described the withdrawal as “encouraging”, but added that it was too soon to draw any conclusions.
The Russian military appeared to have been preparing for an orderly pull-out from Kherson or an ambush for months.
Putin orders Kherson evacuation as Ukrainian forces close in
UK to send heated tents to Ukraine ahead of perilous winter
Russian-installed authorities in the city ordered an “immediate” evacuation of residents last month, amid warnings of a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive.
More than 70,000 residents were evacuated in late October, according to the Moscow-appointed officials, although Ukrainian officials questioned the claim.
Click to subscribe to Ukraine War Diaries wherever you get your podcasts
Mr Zelensky has called attempts to convince civilians to move deeper into Russian-controlled territory “theatre”.