Western officials report that President Putin faces another humiliating defeat as Russian forces abandon their positions in the southern city of Kherson.
Russian commanders have fled the city after being captured in the early days of the invasion, leaving the conscripts "demoralized and leaderless" in the face of a Ukrainian advance. By the end of the year, analysts foresee a Ukrainian victory.
Kherson is the last city on the west bank of the Dnipro, the river that divides Ukraine, which is occupied by Russia. If Kherson fell, Putin would be unable to maintain a military presence on the other side of the river, according to officials.
The rapid advance of troops from Crimea led to the capture of the city, which was the first major Russian victory since the February invasion.
As winter approaches, however, it appears that Russian generals have decided to abandon their foothold on the west bank of the Dnieper and instead focus on fortifying their posts on the east bank.
"They've decided that Kherson is not worth fighting for, but the river's natural defensive barrier is extremely valuable to them," said a western official.
Social media videos reveal that checkpoints have been abandoned and the Russian flag has been lowered from the administrative headquarters.
A clip on Telegram depicts a Russian-installed official assuring civilians that "everything is under complete control" while fleeing in a car.
Despite filming the video from the front seat of a car with the back obscured by suitcases and bags, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Kherson military-civilian administration, insisted that "normal life" was continuing.
The already strained Russian supply lines took another hit this week when a pontoon bridge about 10 kilometers from Kherson was damaged. According to online footage, American Himars rocket launchers fired six missiles at the bridge.
Officials in the West are waiting to see if the setback leads to renewed criticism of the Kremlin; hardliners are outraged over what they perceive to be a disastrous mismanagement of the invasion.
Officials reported that Russian forces were running low on ammunition and that the Kremlin was importing artillery shells from North Korea. After Putin ordered the conscription of 300,000 men, newly mobilized troops appeared on the front lines unarmed.
An official stated, "In Kherson, the majority of command structures have retreated across the river, leaving demoralized and leaderless troops." "The retreat will be portrayed as an evacuation, and we can anticipate an increase in pointed criticism of the Russian leadership."
Russian troops have begun transporting tens of thousands of civilians across the Dnipro River, claiming that they are in danger due to a Ukrainian plan to flood the city by destroying a hydroelectric dam and that they fear a Ukrainian "dirty bomb."
Kyiv's military intelligence accused Russia of looting solar power plants in Kherson and forcibly evicting residents to make way for soldiers.
According to reports, Russian troops were posing as civilians, stealing cars, and transporting children from boarding schools in Kherson to a "psychiatric hospital" in Crimea.
After Ukrainian defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov acknowledged that heavy rains were "slowing us down," Western officials believe there will be a "reduction" in fighting during the winter.
The Institute for the Study of War in Washington's Kateryna Stepanenko predicted that Ukraine would likely capture Kherson by the end of the year.
Given the region's historical ties, she added that the defeat at Kherson would be symbolic. Grigory Potemkin, the Russian general and Catherine the Great's lover is reportedly buried in the city, despite rumors that Kremlin forces have removed his body.
She stated that Kherson has both strategic and historical significance for Russia. The Russians would want to hold this city for propaganda purposes.