Ukrainian forces have entered the city of Kherson as Russian forces retreat in haste. Villagers came out of hiding to welcome the Ukrainian troops and recounted horror stories of Russian soldiers killing civilians and looting homes.
According to Serhiy Khlan, a deputy for the Kherson Regional Council, the city was almost fully under the control of Ukrainian forces. Multiple videos circulating on social media show Ukrainian soldiers planting yellow-and-blue flags in the city while local residents celebrated.
Russia said Friday it finished pulling out its troops from the west bank of the Dnipro River, claiming that no soldiers or equipment had been left behind. Videos of retreating Russian soldiers, however, paint a different picture. One of the Russian soldiers describes how he and his fellow soldiers were asked to hastily change into civilian clothing so they would not be detected. Also, some of the retreating soldiers reportedly drowned in the river while trying to escape.
For those Russian troops who did not make it out of the city, “the only chance to avoid death is to immediately surrender,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate said.
Ukrainian forces have recaptured more than 40 towns in southern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday, as Russia announced it was pulling its troops from Kherson.
“The number of Ukrainian flags returning to their rightful place in the framework of the ongoing defense operation is already dozens, 41 settlements were liberated,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.
Kherson, a strategic port city on the Dnipro River, was captured days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24. On Wednesday, Moscow announced it had made the “difficult decision” to withdraw from the west bank of the river that includes Kherson.
The reports of a swift Russian withdrawal from Kherson came sooner than Western officials had predicted. U.S. Army General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated earlier this week that the retreat would take “days and maybe even weeks.”
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov also had expressed skepticism that Russia could withdraw so quickly, fearing a potential trap by Russia to lure Ukrainian forces into brutal urban combat.
For Russia, Kherson has been a significant strategic region forming a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014. Kherson is one of the four provinces that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed in September, a move the United States and other countries have condemned as illegal.
The victory in Kherson comes after the Pentagon’s announcement Tuesday to provide air defense systems and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine as part of a new $400 million security assistance package.
The Pentagon said the package, which brings the total U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to more than $18.6 billion, would include four short-range, highly mobile Avenger air defense systems — the first time they have been provided to Ukraine — as well as the Stinger missiles they fire.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told Reuters that Ukraine is planning on building up a powerful military and defense industry, and this week’s state takeovers of privately held stakes in strategic companies are part of that drive, he noted.
Ukraine, he said, was already in the process of making an “army of drones” to resist Russia’s invasion, which has included Moscow unleashing waves of Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones to hit vital Ukrainian infrastructure in recent weeks.
“We are trying to be like Israel — more independent during the next years,” he said in the interview in Kyiv Thursday. “I think the best answer (can be seen) in Israel … developing their national industry for their armed forces. It made them independent.”
Zelenskyy thanked U.S. President Joe Biden and the American people for the assistance, tweeting: “Together we’re building an air shield to protect [Ukrainian] civilians. We’re bringing victory over the aggressor closer!”
Heavy toll on both sides
The toll of war since Moscow invaded Ukraine has been heavy. On Armistice Day Friday, while the world paid respect to the fallen during World War I, it reverberated with the rumblings of Russia’s war with Ukraine reminding all of the fragility of peace.
The conflict has killed thousands of people, displaced millions, and destroyed Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.
In mid-October, the U.N. refugee agency said there were more than 7.6 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe, including 2.85 million in Russia. It said another 7 million people have been uprooted within Ukraine.
Since February, “aid workers have provided critical aid and protection services to some 13.5 million people across all regions of Ukraine,” Stephanie Tremblay, an associate U.N. spokesperson, told reporters Thursday in New York.
Late Wednesday, U.S. General Milley estimated that about 200,000 soldiers — 100,000 each of Russian and Ukrainian troops — have been killed in the fighting so far, Reuters reported. He said about 40,000 civilians caught up in the fighting have also been killed.
The United Nations said senior U.N. and Russian officials were meeting Friday in Geneva for discussions to extend a deal that allowed Ukrainian grain to return to world markets and was supposed to eliminate obstacles for Russian exports of grain and fertilizer.
The agreement expires November 19, and Ukraine and Western nations are pressing for it to be extended. Russia’s government has said it is undecided, however, and it has expressed dissatisfaction with how the deal has worked for its side.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.