Ukrainian troops were greeted by a cheering crowd as they entered the centre of Kherson Friday, ending more than 260 days of Russian occupation of the only regional capital to be captured in the war.
A video posted to social media showed people chanting “ZSU!” – the acronym of the Ukrainian armed forces – as the first soldiers arrived on Freedom Square, in front of the regional administration building. A pair of men hoisted a female soldier onto their shoulders and tried to toss her into the air, while another soldier took selfies among the elated residents of the newly liberated city.
“Kherson is Ukraine!” a male voice shouted. Several people in the crowd could be seen wiping tears from their eyes. In another video, residents of another recently liberated town tore down a billboard that read, “Russia is here forever!”
The scenes took place just hours after the last Russian troops left the city centre, most of them retreating to the far bank of the Dnipro River in a strategic withdrawal announced earlier this week by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The retreating Russians destroyed the Antonivsky Bridge, the main route across the Dnipro. Ukrainian forces had repeatedly struck the bridge with rocket fire in recent weeks, making it impassable to large vehicles though still usable to pedestrians until Friday. A replacement pontoon crossing constructed by Russian troops also appeared to have been destroyed.
Even after a pair of Ukrainian and European Union flags were installed Friday morning atop a plinth on Freedom Square – which once bore a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin – the Ukrainian advance into the city centre was slow and cautious. It is feared that Russian troops have mined much of the city, the capital of Kherson oblast, and are planning to pound it with artillery from positions across the river once Ukrainian troops arrive.
Serhiy Khlan, a deputy in the Kherson regional parliament, told an online news conference Friday that the “de-occupation of Kherson is in the final stage.”
He said many Russian troops had been unable to retreat across the river before the bridge was destroyed and had since changed into civilian clothing.
The Russian withdrawal is the latest triumph for the Ukrainian military, following the liberation of the eastern Kharkiv region in September and the successful defence of Kyiv at the start of the war. The loss of Kherson, which had a prewar population of more than 280,000, is also a further blow to the credibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who claimed just six weeks ago to have annexed the entire Kherson oblast – along with the southeastern regions of Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk – declaring that the residents of those regions were “becoming our citizens forever.”
Russia still controls a strip of territory in southern Ukraine – via parts of those four regions – that links Crimea, which it illegally annexed in 2014, to the Russian mainland. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Mr. Putin, said Friday that Russia still claimed all of the Kherson region, saying it “remains a part of the Russian Federation. There are no changes, and there cannot be any changes.”
Volodymyr Omelyan, a member of Ukraine’s reservist Territorial Defence Forces, told The Globe and Mail that his unit had fought for four months in the Kherson region and the neighbouring Mykolaiv region, from April until October, when they were replaced by fresh troops. “We lost many brothers-in-arms because of heavy fights, artillery and missile strikes, but we are very proud to stop the horde, and now they run away,” said Captain Omelyan, a former cabinet minister who, like tens of thousands of Ukrainians, left his regular job and joined the TDF at the start of the war.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said Friday that “not a single unit of military equipment or weapons have been left on the right [western] bank” of the Dnipro. It also claimed that no personnel or equipment had been lost during the withdrawal and that 115,000 civilians “who wanted to leave the area” had been evacuated to Russian-held territory.
Ukraine’s military, meanwhile, released videos that it said showed artillery and rocket fire pounding Russian troops as they retreated.
In a video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed Friday as historic. “The people of Kherson were waiting. They never gave up on Ukraine,” he said. “Even while the city is not yet completely cleansed of the enemy’s presence, the people of Kherson themselves are already removing Russian symbols from the streets and buildings and any traces of the occupiers’ stay in Kherson.”
While residents in newly liberated areas of Kherson were celebrating, the destruction of the Antonivsky Bridge created a new front line – and a fresh divide.
In a video posted to his Telegram channel, Russian war propagandist Alexander Kots interviewed local residents who were surprised to see that their only route to the city centre had been severed. “Do you live over there?” Mr. Kots asked an elderly man who had walked his bicycle to the edge of the Dnipro.
“Yes, I do,” the man replied.
“We also need to go get some food,” added another elderly man who was staring in confusion across the river.