Vladimir Putin has been offered surrender terms by the West, a respected Russian policy expert revealed today, as Moscow’s troops were forced to withdraw from the city of Kherson in yet another humiliating defeat.
Professor Valery Solovey, formerly at Moscow’s prestigious Institute of International Relations and who claims to have connections in the Kremlin, said the surrender would see Russia give up all territory in Ukraine with the exception of Crimea, which would become a demilitarised zone and its status would not be discussed again until 2029.
In return, Putin and his cronies would avoid criminal charges over the war and be allowed to remain in power, Professor Solovey claimed.
He said the proposal had been discussed between Kyiv and its Western allies before being presented to Putin’s inner circle – who had reacted positively to the idea.
Russia has been calling for a return to the negotiating table in recent days while there have been suggestions that Washington is quietly leaning on Kyiv to do the same.
General Mark Milley, head of the US general staff, said this week that a winter lull in fighting presents an “opportunity” for talks.
President Zelensky has previously vowed never to negotiate with Russia so long as Putin remains in power.
The news emerged as Ukraine today liberated Kherson after eight months of Russian occupation, with troops greeted as heroes after the last of Putin’s forces fled. Weeping locals sang, danced, hugged, kissed and chanted victory slogans as Kyiv’s soldiers arrived to take back the city – with parties going on into the night.
Russia claimed it had completed the retreat across the Dnipro River without losing a single soldier, but Ukrainians painted a picture of a chaotic retreat, with soldiers ditching their uniforms or drowning while trying to escape.
Solovey said the exact terms of the deal would mean Russia giving up any claim to the rest of the Kherson region, along with Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk – including areas occupied since 2014. Crimea would remain a part of Russia but would be forced to demilitarize, with the Black Sea Fleet relocated.
A 60mile-wide demilitarized zone would be created along the borders between Belarus, Russia and Ukraine with no heavy weapons allowed inside the zone. Russia would also have to give up its military presence in the Transnistria region of Moldova, while Ukraine would pledge not to join NATO for at least seven years.
Six countries have agreed to provide security guarantees underwriting the deal, Solovey claimed, though he did not name them. Guarantees would likely include a pact to come to Ukraine’s defence if it were attacked again, and guarantors would likely include Kyiv’s closest allies – the US and UK among them.
“If the president declines these conditions which the Russian establishment is ready to accept… then military actions continue,’ said Solovey.
‘If massive rocket attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, first of all, power stations, resume, this means that the president does not accept these conditions,” he said.
“If there is no bombing, it does not necessarily mean readiness to accept [the offer to surrender]. It means that the contemplation continues, and an attempt is being made to get some extra time to assess the situation.”
News of a potential Russian surrender comes as Putin’s army faces a dire situation on the battlefields of Ukraine.
Having been forced to retreat from Kyiv and Kharkiv, Russia’s troops today withdrew from Kherson in the south: The only regional capital gained since the start of the war and capital of a region Putin declared to be part of Russia just a few weeks ago.
Moscow’s troops are struggling to make any progress in Donbas despite heavy fighting in recent weeks, with the frontline having remained largely static since late July. Russia did attempt a major attack near a town called Pavlivka, in Donetsk, last week but it ended in disaster amid reports of more than 300 marines killed.
Meanwhile Ukraine continues advancing in northern Luhansk where it is now bearing down on the cities of Svatove and Kreminna – strategic waypoints on the way to Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, two cities that Russia spent huge amount of time, effort and blood capturing over the summer.
Losing Kherson means any Russian assault on Odesa is now all-but impossible. It also means that Ukraine can now strike parts of Crimea – the crown jewel of his last invasion, in 2014 – with long-range artillery. Kyiv has already said it plans to take the peninsula back.
Russia is now thought to have taken up defensive positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro comprising three lines made up of trenches and canals, covered by artillery and backed by reinforcements from Crimea.
Video from Kherson today showed emotional celebrations breaking out across the city. Crying locals gathered around soldiers just to hug them, and the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag was displayed proudly on monuments and buildings which recently displayed the red, white and blue of the Russian tricolour.
Verified footage showed dozens of Ukrainians cheering and chanting victory slogans in Kherson’s central square, where the apparent first Ukrainian troops to arrive snapped selfies in the crowd.
Two men lifted a female soldier on their shoulders and tossed her into the air. Some residents wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags. One man was weeping with joy.
The celebrations continued as night fell over the city, with more footage emerging of Kherson locals chanting and singing in a town square. In another clip, a group of adults and children alike could be seen joined hand-in-hand, running in circles around a fire.
Western officials briefing journalists last week said they do not expect Ukraine to begin an offensive across the Dnipro any time soon.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted today that Kherson remains part of Russia’s territory – despite Moscow’s troops fleeing from it.
“This is a subject of the Russian Federation. There are no changes in this and there cannot be changes,” Peskov said, insisting that Putin had “no regrets” about annexing it.
However, Western military and diplomatic sources cautioned that the Russian military move did not mean all was said and done – even if it were a major victory for Ukraine.
“It’s definitely a turning point, but it doesn’t mean that Russia has lost or that Ukraine has won,” said Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Russia was still capable of a new offensive or counterattacks. It is far too soon to write them off,” Barry said.
Ukrainian forces have liberated 41 settlements as they advanced through the south, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his Thursday evening video address.
Sappers and pyrotechnicians were going into areas retaken from Russian forces to rid them of thousands of unexploded landmines and ordnance they left behind, he said.
About 170,000 square kilometres (66,000 square miles) remained to be de-mined, Zelenskiy said, including in places where there was still fighting and “where the enemy will add landmines before its withdrawal, as is the case now with Kherson.”
The region’s Ukrainian-appointed governor, Yaroslav Yanushevych, writing on the Telegram messaging app, said Russian troops had “taken away public equipment, damaged power lines and wanted to leave a trap behind them”.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said Russia wanted to turn Kherson into a “city of death”, mining everything from apartments to sewers and planning to shell the city from the other side of the river.
A small group of Ukrainian soldiers was shown on Ukraine’s state TV being greeted by joyous residents in the centre of the village of Snihurivka, around 55 km (35 miles) north of Kherson city, with a Ukrainian flag fluttering above the square behind them. Reuters verified the location of the video.
A few kilometres away, in a devastated frontline village reached by Reuters in an area already held by Ukrainian forces, the guns had fallen silent for what residents said was the first quiet night since the war began.
“We hope the silence means the Russians are leaving,” said Nadiia Nizarenko, 85. The Russians could be preparing a trap, said Nizarenko’s daughter, Svitlana Lischeniuk, 63.
Still, there was joy. Petro Lupan, a volunteer distributing bread to residents, said he could not find words to express his feelings after he learned of the recapture of Snihurivka.
If Russia implements its withdrawal from an area that President Vladimir Putin proclaimed annexed a month ago, it would be its biggest retreat since its forces were driven back from the outskirts of Kyiv in March and a clear shift in the momentum of the nine-month-old war.