The Russian Defense Ministry announced the completion of its withdrawal from areas in the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson on the west bank of the Dnieper River, including the provincial capital, on Friday. This development, which reportedly saw tens of thousands of troops leave the area, is seen by some US and Western officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, as an opportunity to finally pursue negotiations. However, the Kremlin, while remaining open to talks, disputes that the withdrawal changes the region’s status as a part of Russia.
In September, after referendums were held, Moscow announced it had annexed Kherson along with the Zaporizhzhia oblast, as well as the Donbas Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, Russia had been evacuating civilians from Kherson and announced this week that it would withdraw its forces. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the decision was made to protect civilians and troops, there were concerns that Kiev could blow up the Kakhovka dam, flood the area, and isolate Russian forces.
On Friday, Serhiy Khlan, a deputy for Kherson Regional Council, said that a Ukrainian flag had been raised in the regional capital, while President Volodymyr Zelensky announced "our defenders are approaching the city. In quite a bit, we are going to enter. But special units are already in the city.”
While the withdrawal is being celebrated by Kiev and its Western supporters, the Kremlin says the status of the territory has not changed. According to the Associated Press, Russia maintains control of 70% of the Kherson region. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Kherson’s status was “fixed."
Peskov said “It is a subject of the Russian Federation – it is legally fixed and defined. There are no changes and there can be no changes," adding the decision to withdraw was made by the Defense Ministry and that he had "nothing to add."
The Kremlin spokesman reaffirmed Moscow’s openness to peace talks with Peskov saying Russia’s "special military operation" in Ukraine “can only be ended after its goals have been achieved – or by achieving those goals through peace negotiations.”
After Putin announced the annexations of the four regions, Zelensky signed a decree ruling out negotiations absent regime change in Moscow. Washington pressured Kiev to drop its intransigent position ostensibly for public relations reasons. The US was concerned Kiev could risk Western support with Ukraine refusing diplomacy, fighting an endless war in pursuit of regime change, while Russia was willing to negotiate. On the surface, Zelensky acquiesced and offered his readiness to talk, but only if certain non-starter conditions, including "compensation for all war damage, punishment for every war criminal" as well as a full Russian withdrawal, were met first.
Peskov seemed to reference these maximalist demands when he stated "due to the position taken by the Ukrainian side, peace talks are impossible."
Connor Freeman is the assistant editor and a writer at the Libertarian Institute, primarily covering foreign policy. He is a co-host on the Conflicts of Interest podcast. His writing has been featured in media outlets such as Antiwar.com, Counterpunch, and the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. He has also appeared on Liberty Weekly, Around the Empire, and Parallax Views. You can follow him on Twitter @FreemansMind96.