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Ukraine regains control of Kherson

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In southern Ukraine, there were celebrations yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

MARTIN: The city of Kherson has returned to Ukrainian control after nine months of occupation. Russian forces have abandoned the city. We wanted to understand how this news is being received in Russia, though, and what it could mean for the Kremlin's military campaign, so we've called NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thanks so much for joining us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

MARTIN: So, Charles, first of all, because the government exerts such tight control over information, we always wonder what it is that Russians actually know about the progress of the war. So what can you tell us about how this is being reported in Moscow?

MAYNES: Yeah, sure. You know, if Ukraine has presented the liberation of her son as a historic moment, Russian media coverage has often pointed to Russian history for lessons that this is a temporary setback. You know, they remind that key battles against Napoleon in the 19th century, against Nazi Germany in World War II saw Russia initially retreat, only to come out the victor in the end. And there seems to be this coordinated effort in the media, in the blogosphere to mute criticism of the withdrawal and, in particular, of the Russian commander in Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin.

The main message here seems to be that the retreat was militarily the smart move. In fact, a lot of independent analysts would agree. Russia now appears to be digging in fortifications to its new line of defense on the east bank of the Dnipro River - that's across from Kherson - as well as in the annexed territory of Crimea. That's the peninsula to the south. Today, Russia's proxy government to Kherson said they'd moved operations to another regional city, Genichesk (ph). The spokesman for that administration, Sergei Moroz, speaking on state television, insisted his office was a temporary lease.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEI MOROZ: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here Moroz says, we'll be back in Kherson. We haven't abandoned that territory. We've just left it for now to - in his words - regroup.

MARTIN: You know, Charles, I can't help but notice you haven't mentioned Vladimir Putin. Has the Russian president been heard in all of this? I mean, isn't this a huge embarrassment for him?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, you know, President Putin has said nothing about the capitulation of Kherson, and that silence speaks volumes. Let's remember that Putin left it to his defense minister to order the withdrawal from Kherson on Wednesday. Really, since then, you know, Putin's been busy in meetings having to do anything but with Ukraine. It would seem there's no sugarcoating this. However, you know, Kherson is territory that Putin personally assured was Russia's, quote, "forever" when he claimed to annex it illegally, along with three other partially occupied areas of Ukraine in late September. The Kremlin spokesman on Friday insisted nothing had changed on that front. But, of course, that's hard to square with the images and news coming out of Kherson, at least for anyone who's paying attention or on social media.

MARTIN: And so, Charles, before we let you go, there's been something of a debate over whether this could be an inflection point, for example, like a moment for negotiations, I mean, even, you know, dare I say it, for bringing a close to this war. Are you hearing anything of that sort in Moscow?

MAYNES: Well, you know, it's true that Russian officials in recent days have repeatedly insisted they are now open to negotiations with Ukraine, but they argue there's a problem, that it's the West that doesn't want Ukraine to accept any form of compromise. But even these Russian hints at peace talks suggest Moscow wants Ukraine to accept the current latest status quo. In other words, Russia claims victory with the territorial gains it's made over the past year. The problem with that is that because of Ukraine's battlefield successes in Kherson, before that, in Kharkiv and before that, in the capital Kyiv, there's really no reason to negotiate. So there doesn't seem like there's any reason for Ukraine to stop pushing for more territory even as we head into the winter months. It's an open question, though, how Putin or the wider Russian public will react if and when more losses come.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thanks so much for joining us today.

MAYNES: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.