Vladimir Putin has backed the evacuation of civilians from parts of Kherson region, as Ukrainian forces advancing in the south close in on a key city.
The signal from the Russian president is the latest sign of the Kremlin forces’ retreat in one of the most bitterly contested areas in Ukraine.
It comes after Russian-installed authorities in Kherson city ordered an evacuation of residents last month.
Moscow’s troops are currently planning for a controlled withdrawal in the northwest of the Kherson region, likely in an attempt to avoid being routed as fighting continues.
The deteriorating situation for Russian forces raises questions about whether Ukraine’s military can secure another big victory before the onset of winter.
Oleh, the commander of a Ukrainian mechanised infantry unit dug into trenches west of Kherson, is confident his Russian foes will be forced to abandon the strategic port city by worsening weather, logistical logjams and the threat of encirclement.
But neither he nor his men think the Russians will go quickly or quietly and nor do they intend to let them, he told the Reuters news agency.
“They will keep fighting. They will defend their positions as long as they have the ability to do so,” said Oleh, 26, a battle-hardened major who has risen through the ranks since enlisting as a teenager 10 years ago.
“It will be a hard fight.”
Kherson is the only major city captured by Russian forces following its invasion in February and would be a big prize for defence forces to retake.
For President Putin, it would be another setback following a series of significant battlefield losses since mid-August.
Control of Kherson and the west bank of the River Dnipro would give Ukrainian forces a springboard from which to seize a bridgehead on the east side for an advance on Crimea, experts say.
Meanwhile, Iran has for the first time admitted sending the “kamikaze” Shahed-136 drones Ukraine claims have been used in the war.
Hossein Amirabdollahian, the country’s foreign minister, has acknowledged for the first time that his country supplied Russia with these drones.
However, he insisted that the transfer came before Moscow’s war on Ukraine.