Just weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the city of Kherson in southerI n Ukraine to be part of Russia. On Wednesday, one of his top generals and his minister for defence announced plans to withdraw Russian forces from much of the area.

"It is symbolically a blow to Putin, because he annexed it with much fanfare," Sergey Radchencko, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told Prime Time.

"He claimed that Russia is there forever. Well, forever turns out to be a very short period indeed."

Kherson is the only Ukrainian provincial capital to come under Russian control since Putin launched his full-scale invasion. It is located largely on the northern side of the Dnipro river.

Ukrainian forces have been attacking the increasingly isolated Russian forces in the area for weeks.

"My sense is that the Russians have decided to shorten their front lines and withdraw to much more defendable position from their perspective," Prof Radchenko said.

A woman walks in a damaged area which is recently retaken from Russian Forces in Potemkin village, Kherson Oblast. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of Russian forces need to withdraw across the river. Their main exit routes are around two bridges, both of which have been heavily damaged by months of Ukrainian bombing.

Overnight on Thursday, the one closest to the city was completely destroyed.

It's unclear whether the Antonovsky Bridge was destroyed by Ukrainian missiles or retreating Russian forces. The next road crossing over the river is more than 70 km upstream from the city centre.

Prof Radchenko said that it is not known how many Russian troops need to be evacuated, nor how many remain on the northern bank of the Dnipro. Russia's ministry of defence said 30,000 troops had crossed the river by Friday morning.

"Some Ukrainian officials have indicated that some Russians are staying behind, potentially to set a trap on the advanced Ukrainian forces," Radchenko said.

Ukrainian soldiers have been securing towns and villages in the wider Kherson region which Russian forces have left in recent days. There, locals are trying to piece their lives back together after eight months of occupation and war.

On Friday afternoon, social media footage emerged showing the first small group of Ukrainian soldiers entering the city's main square, being greeted by a cheering crowd.

Lyuba, a 73 year-old a Ukrainian man who spends most of his time in a bunker with his wife, speaks to Anadolu News Agency in Kherson, Ukraine (Getty Images)

The retreat from Kherson is just the latest in a series of defeats for the Russian military. It is still attempting to regroup, and reconstitute major units, after many were routed in Ukraine’s September offensive in the northeast. Then, the city of Kharkiv and a huge swathe of surrounding land, was re-taken.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of Russian men have been mobilised into the Russian military. Some have been killed on the frontlines, often after no - or little - training. Hundreds of thousands have fled Russia to avoid a similar fate.

"I think the elites around Putin perfectly understand that Russia is losing this war - and people are asking questions." says Radchenko. "As for the broader impact on the population and the whole country, I don't think people are asking those questions quite yet. I think there's much more confusion at the centre, but the country is relatively quiet."

At the same time, among the world’s politicians and diplomats, there’s growing discussion about the possibility of winter negotiations to end the war.

Both Russia and Ukraine will want to enter any such negotiations in the strongest positions attainable.

As Putin’s military falters, some western analysts are highlighting the vulnerability of European countries to a scaled-up campaign of hybrid warfare, which he could use to increase leverage in any such talks.

In recent months, a series of incidents across Europe have raised eyebrows among such observers.

In late October, multiple internet cables were simultaneously cut near Marseille, slowing internet access for users in Europe, Asia, and the United States. French Intelligence services launched an investigation.

Two weeks earlier, sabotage was carried out on the communications system of rail network in Germany – the case was passed from local to federal investigators several days later.

That’s not to mention the deliberate attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, in September.

A September 30 screengrab shows a gas leak emerging on the surface of the Baltic Sea, above the Nordstream pipeline. (Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images)

Suspicious damage also occurred on subsea cables off the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, on October 20.

"It's always hard to attribute these particular events," says Edward Stringer, who retired from the British Royal Air Force as a senior officer in 2021, having also served as director of operations in the UK Ministry of Defence.

"They can happen in shallow water – a trawler drags its nets across and cuts them, or an anchor. It can happen because of earthquakes."

"What we do know is that the Russians have invested a huge amount of money in recent decades in deep-sea technology, and only really they have got the capacities to operate at those depths and to threaten them. And they are clearly making it clear to the rest of the world that they do have this capacity."

Russian presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said reports of Russia’s involvement in the Nordstream pipeline sabotage "are absolutely ridiculous and biased."

Several important cables that carry data between Europe to the US come ashore in Ireland. Ireland's navy currently operates no submarines.

Targeting a few key nodes, Mr Stringer said, could allow a hostile state to cut one of its adversary nations off from its allies, as well as financial markets. He’s called for the formation of a "a club of like-minded democracies" to work together collectively address threats to subsea infrastructure.

"Global international financial traffic is traveling on those cables. And that's what gives confidence in the system and that's what underpins all our economies – and that's what underpins our way of life," he said.