In a severe setback for Russia, Ukrainian soldiers entered the city of Kherson on Friday, which had been occupied by Russian forces for more than eight months and had been the focus of a kyiv counter-offensive for weeks in the south of the country. It is also part of one of the areas that Moscow said it would annex less than two months ago in a move denounced by the international community.
Russia announces the withdrawal of its troops from the occupied city of Kherson
Images have circulated throughout the day of residents of Kherson taking to the streets with Ukrainian flags and celebrating with shouts and chants, a few hours after the Russian Defense Ministry said that its troops had finished withdrawing down the Dnieper River from the western shore, the area where this key city and capital of the homonymous region is located.
“Today is a historic day. We are returning to Kherson. Our defenders are at the approaches to the city. But the special units are already in the city”, said, already at night, the Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski. “Even when the city is not yet completely cleansed of the enemy’s presence, Kherson’s own inhabitants are already removing Russian symbols from the streets and buildings and any traces of the occupants’ stay.”
A few hours after Moscow’s announcement, the Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry published a statement on Facebook that confirmed that Ukraine was taking control of Kherson and units of the kyiv Army were entering the city. Yuriy Sak, adviser to the Defense Ministry, explained to the BBC that Ukraine has “almost total control” of the town. Ukrainian authorities have warned that some Russian units may have remained in Kherson.
In its evening part, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has reported that its units “have already reached the western bank of the Dnieper in some places.” “Measures are being taken to identify and destroy the enemy in various settlements.”
Videos posted on the Internet have shown several people in military uniform in the center of Kherson surrounded by citizens who shout and celebrate their arrival. Images of Ukrainian flags atop a monument in a central city square have also circulated and, in a BBC-verified photo, a European Union flag is visible. President Zelensky has shared a recording that appears to show Ukrainian soldiers being cheered on by residents.
Kherson is the only regional capital of Ukraine that Russia had managed to capture during the war. It was located, in fact, in the only territory that Moscow controlled west of the Dnieper River, which bisects the country. The city fell into Russian hands quickly, in the first days of the invasion, and also soon became the scene of anti-occupation protests. In an attempt to tighten its grip, Moscow sacked local authorities and put in its own, and tried to impose the ruble.
The loss of Kherson is seen as a major defeat for Russia, both militarily and symbolically and politically, on top of other setbacks for Vladimir Putin on the battlefield, including the first failed attempt to capture the capital. Ukrainian and the hasty withdrawal from Kharkov, to the northeast.
Asked by journalists whether the decision to withdraw was humiliating, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov replied: “No.”
Russia says it has withdrawn 30,000 military
Russia publicly ordered this Wednesday the withdrawal of its soldiers in this area. This Friday, the Russian Ministry of Defense said that the withdrawal had been completed at 5:00 in the morning from Moscow and that “not a single unit of military equipment or weapons remained” on the West Bank. “All Russian military have redeployed to the shore” east, the statement said. “Military units and corps of the Russian armed forces have taken defensive lines and positions prepared in advance.”
The scope of the withdrawal has not been able to be verified at the moment by independent means. Western analysts and officials had expected Russia to take several days to complete. In a subsequent statement, Moscow assures that in total “more than 30,000 Russian soldiers, some 5,000 units of weapons and material, as well as material means, have been withdrawn.” Serhii Khlan, a deputy from the Kherson Regional Council, has refuted this claim, saying that “many teams have been abandoned”.
One of the big questions was whether it could do so without suffering major losses in equipment and personnel – the Russian Defense Ministry claims that casualties in personnel, weapons and equipment have been “avoided”. Several voices had suggested that the proper strategy for the Russians was to withdraw in an orderly manner across the river rather than risk being encircled by counter-offensive Ukrainian troops, in contrast to the chaotic retreat in eastern Kharkiv in September. .
Ukrainian authorities have explained this Friday that there may be some Russian soldiers in the city who have removed their military uniforms. “To the Russian soldiers, mercenaries and collaborators left behind in Kherson and other southern cities: the only chance of salvation for you is to surrender to Ukrainian captivity. We guarantee that they will be treated in accordance with the law and international standards. And to the Russian soldiers who have put on civilian clothes and are hiding somewhere, I want to say that there is no point in hiding. We’ll find you anyway. Don’t lengthen it. Voluntary captivity is the only option for all occupants,” Zelensky said.
The Ukrainian president has explained that the first task to be carried out after the arrival of the Ukrainian forces will be demining. “The occupiers left behind many mines and explosives, particularly on vital property,” Zelensky said. “Our defenders are immediately followed by police, sappers, rescuers, energy workers… Medicine, communications, social services are coming back… Life is coming back.”
According to various reports, the Antoniv Bridge over the Dnieper River, the main crossing near the city (and the object of Ukrainian attacks during its counter-offensive in the south), has been destroyed. According to Khlan, it has been blown up by the Russians “with the barges that were under it, and made it impossible even for pedestrians to cross the bridge.” “By fleeing, they blew up everything there was, everything that could at least somehow stop the attack of the Ukrainian armed forces.”
The Maxar company has released satellite images taken this Friday that reveal new damage to several bridges and the New Kajovka dam (about 70 kilometers east of Kherson) after the Russian withdrawal.
“An important victory”
Until now, the Ukrainian authorities have been publicly skeptical and cautious about Russia’s announced withdrawal, amid fears that its soldiers could be lured into a costly battle in the city – something that several military analysts doubt. –. “The enemy does not give us gifts, he does not make ‘gestures of goodwill,'” Zelensky said Wednesday.
However, kyiv has been adopting a more triumphant tone with the passing of the hours. “The ‘Second Army of the World’ tries to escape on foot…”, the head of the presidential office, Andriy Yermak, wrote this Friday morning on Telegram. “In February, some thought that the Ukrainian Army would not last more than ‘three days’. For now: defended kyiv, liberated three regions, vacated Kharkiv and approached Kherson,” Zelensky adviser Mikhail Podolyak tweeted.
‘Russia is here forever,’ read a billboard in Bilozerka, near Kherson. Well, it’s not like that!” said the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitro Kuleba. “Ukraine is scoring another important victory right now and it shows that whatever Russia says or does, Ukraine will win.”
The Ukrainian Army had advanced several kilometers and recovered several towns in the last few hours. During its operation to recapture the occupied south, Ukraine has since the summer hit Russian supply lines, including the bridges that supply them, in an attempt to isolate them, straining its ability to sustain its forces on the west bank.
Strategically located north of the Crimean peninsula – which Russia annexed in 2014 – the port and industrial city of Kherson is considered a vital enclave for control of the south, which is a gateway to the Black Sea. “The loss of the west bank of Kherson will likely prevent Russia from achieving its strategic aspiration of a land bridge reaching Odessa,” British intelligence said on Thursday.
Before the war, about 280,000 people lived there and it is important from an economic point of view.
In September, Vladimir Putin proclaimed the annexation of the Kherson region – without specifying which parts of the Ukrainian territory – to Russia in defiance of international law and after a pseudo-referendum widely condemned as illegal and false. Putin claimed that the inhabitants of Kherson would become Russian citizens “forever”. The Kremlin spokesman said on Friday that Moscow continues to consider the Kherson region as “part of Russia”. Until now, Putin has remained silent on Kherson.
Recapturing the city of Kherson may provide Ukraine with a strong position from which to expand its counteroffensive in the south to other occupied areas. However, from the new positions of its forces on the eastern bank, Moscow could try to escalate the war.
Following the withdrawal, Moscow’s forces still control a significant swath of the Kherson region across the Dnieper River. Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian Army, explained a few days ago that forcing a Russian withdrawal across the river may put Ukrainian systems within range of some Crimean land lines of communication, but it will also give Russian forces a great natural barrier, less terrain to defend and a higher density of forces relative to the terrain.