Ukraine’s president vowed to keep pushing Russian forces out of his country after they withdrew from the southern city of Kherson, leaving behind devastation, hunger and booby traps.
The Russian retreat marked a triumphant milestone in Ukraine’s pushback against Moscow’s invasion almost nine months ago. Kherson residents hugged and kissed the arriving Ukrainian troops in rapturous scenes.
“We will see many more such greetings” of Ukrainian soldiers liberating Russian-held territory, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address Saturday.
He pledged to the people in Ukrainian cities and villages that are still under occupation: “We don’t forget anyone; we won’t leave anyone.”
Ukraine’s retaking of Kherson was a significant setback for the Kremlin and the latest in a series of battlefield embarrassments. It came some six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine — in breach of international law — and declared them Russian territory.
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv tweeted comments Sunday by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who described the turnaround in Kherson as “an extraordinary victory” for Ukraine and “quite a remarkable thing.”
The reversal came despite Putin’s recent partial mobilization of reservists, raising available troop numbers by some 300,000. That has been hard for the Russian military to digest.
“Russian military leadership is trying and largely failing to integrate combat forces drawn from many different organizations and of many different types and levels of skill and equipment into a more cohesive fighting force in Ukraine,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that tracks the conflict, commented.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the Kremlin will be “worried” by the loss of Kherson but warned against underestimating Moscow. “If they need more cannon fodder, that is what they’ll be doing,” he said.
Driving toward Kherson from the Mykolaiv region, AP reporters saw downed electrical lines, used projectile casings and the decomposed carcass of a cow. Several destroyed tanks lined the muddy road.
As Ukrainian forces on Sunday consolidated their hold on Kherson, authorities contemplated the daunting task of clearing out explosive devices and restoring basic public services in the city.
One Ukrainian official described the situation in Kherson as “a humanitarian catastrophe.” The remaining residents in the city are said to lack water, medicine and food. There are shortages of key basics such as bread because of a lack of electricity.
Ukrainian police called on residents to help identify collaborators with Russian forces during the eight-month occupation. Ukrainian police officers returned to the city Saturday, along with public broadcasting services, following the departure of Russian troops.
The national police chief of Ukraine, Ihor Klymenko, said Saturday on Facebook that about 200 officers were at work in the city, setting up checkpoints and documenting evidence of possible war crimes.
In what could perhaps be the next district to fall in Ukraine’s march on territory illegally annexed by Moscow, the Russian-appointed administration of the Kakhovka district, east of Kherson city, announced Saturday it was evacuating its employees.
“Today, the administration is the number one target for Ukrainian attacks,” said the Moscow-installed leader of Kakhovka, Pavel Filipchuk.
“Therefore, by order of the government of the Kherson region, we, as an authority, are moving to a safer territory, from where we will lead the district,” he wrote on Telegram.
Kakhovka is located on the left bank of the River Dnieper, upstream of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station.
The deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said six people died on Saturday as a result of Russian shelling.
Writing on Telegram on Sunday, he said four people were killed and one wounded in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, two were killed in the Kherson region, and two wounded in the central Dnipropetrovsk region.
In Kherson, photos on social media Saturday showed Ukrainian activists removing memorial plaques put up by the occupation authorities. A Telegram post by Yellow Ribbon, the Ukrainian resistance movement in the occupied regions, showed two people in a park taking down plaques picturing Soviet-era military figures.
Moscow’s announcement that Russian forces were withdrawing across the Dnieper River, which divides both the Kherson region and Ukraine as a whole, followed a stepped-up Ukrainian counteroffensive in the country’s south. In the past two months, Ukraine’s military claimed to have retaken dozens of towns and villages north of the city of Kherson, and the military said that’s where stabilization activities were taking place.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba sought to temper the excitement over the Russian retreat from Kherson.
“We are winning battles on the ground, but the war continues,” he said from Cambodia, where he was attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists Sunday that a joint statement on the results of the summit was not adopted, since “the American side and its partners insisted on an unacceptable assessment of the situation in Ukraine and around it.”
The Kremlin is angered by the support Ukraine receives from its Western allies, including the United States.