Russian authorities are laying the groundwork to justify a planned withdrawal from the Kherson region of southern Ukraine following failures and strategic losses, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

A report on the Russian war effort published by ISW late Wednesday argues that the Kremlin is “likely setting information conditions to justify planned Russian withdrawals and significant territorial losses in Kherson Oblast.”

General Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Russian army in Ukraine, mocked the “difficult decisions” in Kherson during an appearance on Russian state television on Wednesday. Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed head of Kherson, announced the same day that the west bank of the Dnipro River was being evacuated in anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

“Surovikin’s and Saldo’s statements are probably attempts to set the information conditions for a complete Russian withdrawal across the Dnipro River, which would cede the city of Kherson and other important territory in Kherson Oblast to advancing Ukrainian troops,” states the ISW report.

“Russian military leaders… [are] probably trying to mitigate the informational and operational consequences of not being able to defend against another successful Ukrainian advance,” he continues.

Unconfirmed reports on social media claimed that Russian intelligence service (FSB) officers and Chechen troops had already started withdrawing from the city of Kherson two to three days ago. The city, on the west bank of the Dnipro River, is the capital of the Kherson region and the first major settlement Russia captured after invading Ukraine on February 24.

ISW said Russian forces plan to launch a “false flag” attack on the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, which is located less than 50 miles east of the city of Kherson. Surovikin and Saldo have preemptively claimed in recent days that the Ukrainian military plans to launch an attack on the plant.

“The Kremlin could try to exploit a false flag attack to overshadow news of a third humiliating withdrawal for Russian forces, this time from west of Kherson,” ISW said. “Such an attack would also further the Russian false information operation that portrays Ukraine as a terrorist state deliberately targeting civilians.”

Russia may also be planning to use the evacuation of the city of Kherson as “a cover for the massive forced withdrawal of civilians from Russian-occupied areas in Ukraine,” according to ISW. The think tank said the evacuated Ukrainians could be forced into the Russian military, which would make up for “the losses and failures” of Putin’s partial mobilization.

Putin declared martial law in Kherson on Wednesday, along with four other Ukrainian regions he claimed to have annexed to Russia this month. ISW described the declaration of martial law as “legal theater” intended to create “a framework for future internal mobilizations and restrictions.”

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