Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly endorsed the evacuation of civilians from parts of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region on Friday, the latest sign of Russia’s retreat in one of the most hotly contested areas in Ukraine.

“Now, of course, those who live in Kherson should be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions, because the civilian population should not suffer,” Putin told pro-Kremlin activists as he marked Russia’s Day of National Unity.

Moscow has already been ferrying people out of an area it controls in Kherson on the west bank of the Dinpro River, and this week announced that the evacuation zone would also include a 15-kilometre buffer area on the east bank. But the comments appear to be the first time Putin has endorsed the evacuations personally.

Russia says it has been taking residents to safety from the path of a Ukrainian advance. Kyiv says the measures have included forced deportations of civilians out of Russian-occupied territory, a war crime, which Russia denies.

Kherson is one of four Ukrainian provinces Putin claimed to have annexed at the end of September after referendum votes condemned by the West. Ukrainian forces have been advancing in recent weeks in the only Russian-held pocket on the west bank of the Dnipro, a strategically vital foothold that Moscow had reinforced with thousands of troops.

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On Thursday, Vladimir Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-installed occupation administration in Kherson, said Russia was likely to withdraw its troops from the west bank of the river. In later remarks, Stremousov was more equivocal, saying he hoped there would be no retreat but “we have to take some very difficult decisions.”

Kyiv has been wary, saying the signs of a Russian pullout could be deception to lure its troops into a trap. A day after Stremousov’s remarks, there was silence from higher-ups in Moscow about the prospect of a military retreat.

Russia’s flag gone 

Speculation has swirled over whether Russia was pulling out, since photos circulated on the internet on Thursday showing the main administrative building in Kherson city with Russia’s flag no longer flying atop it.

The regional capital, which is located on the west bank at the mouth of the Dnipro, is the only big city Russia has captured intact since its invasion in February. Its loss for Russian forces would be one of the severest blows of the war.

Police officers inspect destroyed apartment buildings after Russian shelling in Pokrovsk, Donetsk region, on Friday in Ukraine. (Andriy Andriyenko/The Associated Press)

The surrounding province controls land access to Russian-occupied Crimea, and securing it was one of the few successes of an otherwise disastrous Russian campaign.

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said he “certainly” believed Ukrainian forces could retake the Russian-held area on the west bank, in perhaps his most optimistic comments on the counter-offensive to date.

“Most importantly, the Ukrainians believe they have the capability to do that. We have seen them engage in a very methodical but effective effort to take back their sovereign territory.”

G7 plotting how to help Ukraine’s reconstruction

Meanwhile, top diplomats from the G7 countries have agreed on the need for a co-ordination mechanism to help Ukraine repair and defend its critical energy and infrastructure from Russia’s attacks, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Friday.

G7 countries gathered in the western German city of Muenster this week with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s deepening military alignment with Moscow over the war as well as China’s growing assertiveness topping the agenda.

A Ukrainian serviceman arranges a dugout at a position on a frontline, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the Mykolaiv region of Ukraine on Friday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The countries also discussed the state of the battlefield to figure out which weapons to provide to Kyiv, although this time the focus was more on assistance that would allow Ukraine to defend itself from the intensifying Russian attacks on its energy and water infrastructure, the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.

“They discussed what needs Ukraine was facing as it heads into the winter and agreed that there needed to be a G7 co-ordinating mechanism to help Ukraine repair, restore and defend its critical energy and water infrastructure,” the official told reporters.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba joined the G7 discussion virtually.

Over the past few weeks, Russia has launched waves of missile and drone strikes targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Kyiv says they have damaged up to 40 per cent of the power system and Ukrainian authorities warned that residents may face hours of blackouts due to the limited supplies.

Moscow has acknowledged targeting energy infrastructure but denies targeting civilians in what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine to eliminate dangerous nationalists and protect Russian-speakers.

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