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Russia declines to comment on Ukrainian President’s visit to area it claimed only six weeks ago to have annexed ‘forever’

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Ukrainian troops surround President Volodymyr Zelensky on Nov. 14 during an unannounced visit to Kherson, a city newly liberated from Russian forces.Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited newly liberated Kherson on Monday, addressing the residents of a city that Russia claimed only six weeks ago to have annexed “forever.”

“This is the beginning of the end of the war,” Mr. Zelensky told a crowd of several hundred cheering people who came to the city’s central Freedom Square to greet him. “We are step by step returning to all of the temporarily occupied territories.”

Mr. Zelensky made the unannounced visit just 72 hours after the first Ukrainian troops entered Kherson in the wake of a Russian withdrawal across the Dnipro River, which now forms the front line.

His appearance also came on the opening day of a G20 summit in Indonesia that is expected to be dominated by discussions of the war in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be in attendance.

Speaking on the sidelines of the summit in Bali, U.S. President Joe Biden hailed “the courage, determination and capacity of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military,” and said the U.S. would “provide the capability for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves.”

But in a sign that the White House is worried about an escalation of the war, CIA director William Burns met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin, in Ankara on Monday in the highest-level face-to-face talks between the U.S. and Russia since Mr. Putin ordered his troops across the Ukrainian border in February.

Mr. Putin has repeatedly suggested that Russia is ready to use everything in its arsenal – a barely coded reference to nuclear weapons – to defend what it considers to be its territory. In October, he signed a decree claiming that the Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk had been annexed and were now part of the Russian Federation. Russia also illegally seized and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

While Mr. Putin was avoiding a confrontation with his G20 counterparts, Mr. Zelensky – not for the first time – was standing just two kilometres from Russian-controlled territory. He oversaw a ceremonial flag-raising and pinned medals on soldiers who had taken part in the liberation of Kherson.

“Honestly, it’s important to be here. This is important. Everybody is at risk. The military takes risks every day,” he told an impromptu news conference on Freedom Square, just hours after the regional governor had asked people not to gather in the city centre because of the number of mines and boobytraps left behind by retreating Russian forces.

“It seems to me that we need to speak here and support Kherson residents,” Mr. Zelensky said. “I will tell you humanly that I really want to get the emotions, the energy from the people.”

Ukrainian soldiers in the Kherson region drive a captured Russian vehicle and remove a Russian poster. Bernat Armangue, Libkos/The Associated Press

Mr. Putin, who ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, has yet to set foot in any of the country’s occupied areas.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesperson, said the Kremlin had nothing to say about Mr. Zelensky’s trip to Kherson. “We leave that without comments. You know it’s the territory of the Russian Federation.”

It’s a territory left in shambles. Kherson was without water, power or mobile phone service Sunday when The Globe and Mail visited the city, though Ukrainian engineers were racing to restore services.

Residents who had remained in the city during Russia’s 256-day occupation recalled how they lived in fear of the enemy forces. The Russians initially appeared to tolerate pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in the city, only to later arrest and interrogate those who had taken part.

“It was so scary. We couldn’t go anywhere, and there was no food, no electricity, no mobile network,” said Dasha Bryletska, a 16-year-old who said she spent most of the past eight months indoors, taking an online nursing course.

She said she now hoped to leave Kherson and go to university somewhere else in Ukraine.

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'We couldn’t go anywhere' during the Russian occupation, says Dasha Bryletska.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

In a Sunday video address, Mr. Zelensky said Ukrainian forces had already discovered evidence of 400 alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces in the region. “The bodies of both civilians and military personnel have been found,” he said.

Some Kherson residents, however, appear to have accepted the Russian presence, taking jobs in the occupation administration and receiving salaries and pensions that residents say were higher than those paid in Ukraine. At least some residents – Russia claims 115,000 out of a prewar population of almost 300,000 – appear to have fled across the Dnipro ahead of the influx of Ukrainian troops.

Oleksandr Vilkul, the head of the military administration in the nearby city of Kryvyi Rih, visited Kherson on Sunday and said its liberation was important to all of southern Ukraine. “On the right bank of the Dnipro, cities like Mykolaiv, Odesa and Kryvyi Rih are now 100-per-cent safe from ground operations. There will still be rockets, kamikaze drones and attacks on our energy systems, but no one will enter these cities with tanks,” Mr. Vilkul said.

And, he added, the liberation of Kherson opened other military options for Ukraine. “It’s not that far from here to Crimea.”

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