KYIV, Ukraine — With Russian and Ukrainian forces apparently girding to battle for the city of Kherson, signs of Kremlin rule are disappearing from the city’s streets while the remaining residents, unsure what to believe and afraid of what comes next, are stocking up on food and fuel to survive combat.
Russian soldiers, patrols and checkpoints have suddenly become extremely scarce in the city center, according to residents reached by phone on Thursday, and most civilians have left. The Russian tricolor flag, raised over government offices after Moscow’s forces captured Kherson in February, was missing on Thursday from the main regional administrative building and other sites.
“On one hand I was happy to see that, but on the other I’m worried that it would be anarchy now,” a Kherson resident, Oleksandr — who, like others interviewed, asked that his surname be withheld for his safety — said in a text message. “So I bought extra stuff as I don’t know whether it would be safe to move around the city in the next days or weeks.”
Kremlin-appointed administrators have relocated to a site 50 miles away — after looting anything of value they could take, residents and Ukrainian officials said.
But Russian troops have not decamped from the area.
Ukrainian military intelligence says Russia has deployed some 40,000 soldiers to the western bank of the Dnipro River to stop the Ukrainian military from reclaiming Kherson.
As Ukrainian forces advance from the north and west, they are encountering fierce resistance, and Ukrainian officials have said they expect the battle for the southern city to be brutal, as its loss would be a major strategic and symbolic loss for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Like Kherson, much of eastern and southern Ukraine has been largely depopulated since the Russian invasion in February. More than 14 million people — about one-third of the prewar population — have been driven from their homes, according to the United Nations, with more than half of those now living abroad.
Those who remain within Ukraine face increasingly harsh conditions as Russian missile and drone strikes deprive them of shelter, power, heat and water, with winter approaching.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that Ukraine represents the world’s “fastest and largest displacement witnessed in decades.” He added that “the destruction caused by strikes at civilian infrastructure, which is happening as we speak, is quickly making the humanitarian response look like a drop in the ocean of needs.”
The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said on Thursday that it had inspected three Ukrainian facilities and found no evidence of illegal nuclear activity, refuting Russian claims that Ukraine was using the sites to prepare a radioactive “dirty bomb.” Ukrainian and Western officials have rejected those accusations, which were unaccompanied by any evidence, suggesting that the Kremlin could be using the charge as a pretext to escalate the war.
Also on Thursday, U.S. officials met with Brittney Griner, the American basketball star jailed since February in Russia, for the first time since a court rejected her appeal of a cannabis possession conviction. The White House and State Department have been trying to secure her release.
“We are told she is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances,” the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters on Air Force One as she traveled with President Biden to New Mexico.
Kherson, which fell in the first days of the invasion, is the only regional capital captured by the Russians, whose position there has grown precarious in the face of a Ukrainian offensive. Ukrainian forces have destroyed the bridges linking Kherson to Russian-controlled territory across the Dnipro to the east, making it harder for Moscow’s forces to reinforce and resupply the city.
Pro-Kremlin military bloggers on Thursday expressed concern about what they said were suggestions that Russia might be preparing not just a civilian withdrawal but a military one, ceding the city to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials dismissed such talk as a feint, meant to lure their forces into a trap the Russians have had months to build.
Russians have been seen in recent days fortifying defensive positions outside the city. The Ukrainian military has reported the movement of heavy Russian artillery to the east bank of the river, a move that it, and some local residents, saw as an ominous sign of preparations to lay the city to waste.
Nov. 3, 2022, 4:58 p.m. ET
“I think that they are removing their personnel so that in the case of a breakthrough of the defensive lines, they can easily shell the city,” said Ivan, a resident who has remained in Kherson.
Any signs of a Russian withdrawal “might be a provocation in order to create the impression that they have left the settlements and it is safe to enter them,” Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military southern command, said on Thursday. “Considering the fact that they have been preparing for street fighting for a long time and the way they are positioning their units, we are aware that this might be a planned tactical action, and we should not be too quick to rejoice. We have to understand that hybrid war involves hoaxes like these, attacks that can be calculated to weaken the troops.”
A Western official said on Thursday that most Russian commanders had withdrawn from the city, crossing the river to the east, and had left “pretty demoralized” (and in some cases, leaderless) troops to face the Ukrainian forces.
Many of those Russian troops in Kherson are newly mobilized reservists who are “woefully equipped and unprepared” for combat, the official said.
Each side has accused the other of preparing to damage the Kakhovka dam, upstream on the Dnieper, which could flood much of the city and the surrounding country. The dam has the nearest road crossing of the river for Russians west of the Dnipro.
In October, the Russian proxy government in the region ordered civilians to evacuate the city of Kherson, ferrying thousands of them across the river but making it hard for them to cross the front lines into Ukrainian-held territory. Ukrainian officials and some locals say people have been forced against their wishes deeper into Russian-held territory, though an unknown number remain in Kherson.
Speaking on Russian state television, Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Kremlin-appointed occupation administration, continued to urge people to evacuate areas on both sides of the Dnipro, even saying that Russian troops will “most likely” move to the east bank. In another video from the city, he lamented how many people were still walking on the streets of Kherson.
“People, who ignored our calls about security and shelling, I remind you that the situation is difficult,” he said in a video posted on Telegram, a popular social messaging app.
On Thursday, photos showed the destruction of at least six cellular towers along the west bank of the Dnipro, further cutting off residents from the outside world and making it harder to get a clear picture of what was happening. Serhii Klan, the Ukrainian deputy administrator of the Kherson region, said the Russians have now prohibited civilian movement along the river.
There is little evident panic in the city, although people believe that it is a question of time before bombs begin to fall, according to some residents. They are stocking up on water and nonperishable foods, as well as gasoline and firewood, said Ivan.
“They are cleaning out and supplying their basements,” he said.
The occupation government has moved to the city of Skadovsk, about 50 miles to the southeast, firmly in Russian-held territory. Ukrainians say that Russia’s civilian administrators and troops have stripped the city of all of its ambulances, fire engines and medical supplies, and much of the furniture, artworks, appliances and religious icons. They even took the bones of Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, the 18th-century commander who helped Catherine the Great conquer southern Ukraine.
“Absolutely all the property in our city, which belonged to the municipal enterprises that provided essential services for our city, has been plundered,” said Halyna Luhova, the head of Ukrainian regional administration.
Over the past two days, he said, he saw occupation authorities dressed in civilian clothes stripping local government buildings of goods, taking away furniture, office supplies and even plumbing fixtures. All the plundered goods were loaded into the white vans that arrived early in the war loaded with humanitarian assistance, he said.
Marc Santora reported from Kyiv and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia. Reporting was contributed by Richard Pérez-Peña from New York, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, Michael Schwirtz from Lviv, Ukraine, Eric Schmitt from Washington and Dan Bilefsky from Montreal.