They poured onto the streets of Kherson early Saturday, hugging police officers and waving the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag to celebrate the city's second day of liberation.
“In the next days the Ukrainians will be repairing the electricity networks and also the water facilities and internet,” Aexei Sandakov, one of the city's residents, told NBC News in a voice message Saturday.
In a separate message on Friday, the documentary filmmaker said he was in downtown Kherson when a vehicle carrying Ukrainian soldiers swept by that afternoon.
“Everyone wanted to embrace them. The guys didn’t know what to do. We need more soldiers to give them hugs,” Sandakov said. “In every corner, everyone is clapping, showing Ukrainian flags, giving signals to the cars,” he said.
As people continued to celebrate Saturday, waving flags and beeping their car horns, the chief of the National Police of Ukraine, Ihor Klymenko, said in a Facebook post that some 200 officers were at work in the southern city. He said they were setting up checkpoints and documenting evidence of possible war crimes.
In a separate Facebook post, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a statement posted to its Facebook page that it was “carrying out stabilization measures” in and around the city to make sure it was safe.
However, it also said that Russians were fortifying their battle lines on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, which divides the Kherson region where the city of the same name is based.
NBC News cannot independently verify this claim.
Elsewhere, Russian state news agency Tass quoted Aleksandr Fomin, an official in Kherson’s Kremlin-appointed administration on Saturday as saying that Henichesk, a city on the Azov Sea some 125 miles southeast of Kherson city, would serve as the region’s “temporary capital” after the withdrawal.
The Russian pullout from Kherson, the only regional capital its forces had captured since its invasion began in February, marks one of the biggest blows yet for President Vladimir Putin, abandoning perhaps the greatest prize of the war he launched nearly nine months ago and severely weakening his grip over the country’s south.
After Russia staged referendums in September that were denounced by Kyiv and the West as illegal and rigged, Moscow said it had annexed the Kherson region, along with Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia.
Suggesting the withdrawal had brought “significant reputational damage,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said in it's daily intelligence briefing on Saturday that there was a “realistic possibility that Russian military equipment and forces in civilian attire” had been evacuating with the civilians.
“The capture of Kherson is a significant operational and psychological victory, but it does not change the overall shape of the campaign or of the war in particular,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert and a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank.
But it did not “change the underlying factors that will eventually mean Russian or Ukrainian success,” he added.
“For Ukraine this is still a race against time to ensure that it can sustain its population and keep them warm and alive over winter by making sure that Ukraine’s economy and energy, infrastructure remains functional, despite Russia’s best attempts to destroy it and cause as much misery and suffering as possible, because Russia realized some time ago that since it is not able to win this war on the battlefield,” he said.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also sought to temper the excitement.
“We are winning battles on the ground, but the war continues,” he said from Cambodia, where he was attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“Every time we liberate a piece of our territory, when we enter a city liberated from Russian army, we find torture rooms and mass graves with civilians tortured and murdered by Russian army in the course of the occupation of these territories,” he said.
While much of the focus was on southern Ukraine, Russia continued its grinding offensive in Ukraine’s industrial east, targeting the Donetsk regional city of Bakhmut, the Ukrainian General Staff said.
A successful offensive in the east may buy Russia more time as morale collapses over significant Ukrainian gains in the south and growing perceptions of Russia’s collapsing military strategy.
Leila Sackur reported from London and Erin McLaughlin from Los Angeles.