The Kremlin president acknowledged for the first time on Friday that the situation in the province he claims to have annexed, Kherson, in Ukraine was getting worse and that residents should be evacuated from the fighting zone.
As he observed Russia’s Day of National Unity, Putin urged pro-Kremlin demonstrators, “Now, of course, those who live in Kherson should be withdrawn from the zone of the most dangerous acts because the civilian population should not suffer.”
Putin’s remark, which came unprompted after one activist told the Russian president on Red Square about his work delivering Russian flags to Kherson, was shown on state television and reported by state news agency RIA.
Russian-installed officials in Kherson region, one of four Ukrainian provinces that Putin declared part of Russia at a Kremlin ceremony in September, have pleaded for civilians to leave the region’s west, where Ukrainian forces have retaken ground in recent weeks.
On Thursday, Kherson’s Russian-appointed deputy governor Kirill Stremousov issued several video appeals for civilians to leave the part of the province on the west bank of the Dnipro river. He said that Russian forces would likely soon give up the west bank of the Dnipro to Ukraine.
Kherson region, the majority of which Russia has controlled since shortly after launching its military campaign in Ukraine on Feb. 24, is seen as strategically crucial, controlling both overland access and much of the water supply to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
It remains the only regional capital that Russia has captured since February.
Ukraine announced a counteroffensive in Kherson in August, driving Russian forces from much of the region’s north in September.
General Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, has previously referred to a difficult situation in Kherson.