Russia has abandoned its last base in a major city in southern Ukraine, allowing Ukrainian forces to cautiously work toward retaking the country’s only Russian-held provincial capital.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its troops finished withdrawing from the west bank of the river, which bisects Ukraine’s Kherson region, by 5 a.m. local time.
The area they left included the city of Kherson, the only provincial capital Russia had captured during its nearly nine-month invasion of Ukraine.
Videos and photos circulating on social media showed local residents happily taking to the streets and a Ukrainian flag flying over a monument atop a central Kherson for the first time since early March when the city was captured by the Russians – Square blows.
Some footage showed crowds cheering on men in military uniforms.
Ukrainian officials have not confirmed that the city is back in Ukrainian hands. A spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence said that “an operation to liberate Kherson” and the surrounding region of the same name was underway.
“But it will be possible to talk about establishing Ukrainian control over the city only after an official report from the General Staff of the Ukrainian Army,” Andriy Yusov told The Associated Press.
Ukrainian intelligence called on Russian soldiers who may still be in the city to surrender in anticipation of the arrival of Kiev forces.
“Your command has left you at the mercy of fate… Your commanders are telling you to put on civilian clothes and attempt to flee Kherson on your own. Apparently. They won’t be able to,” the intelligence agency said in a statement.
Russia’s final withdrawal came six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed the Kherson region and three other Ukrainian provinces, vowing that they would remain Russian forever.
Moscow’s armed forces still control about 70 percent of the Kherson region after the withdrawal ordered as part of a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The Kremlin remained defiant on Friday, insisting the withdrawal was in no way embarrassing for Mr Putin.
Moscow continues to view the entire Kherson region as part of Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
He added that the Kremlin does not regret having held celebrations just over a month ago to celebrate the annexation of the occupied or partially occupied territories of Ukraine.
Shortly before the Russian announcement, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation in the province as “difficult”.
It reported on Russian shelling of some villages and towns that Ukrainian forces had recaptured during their counter-offensive in the Kherson region in recent weeks.
Ukraine’s presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak predicted on Thursday that the retreating Russians would try to turn Kherson into a “city of death” and would continue bombing it once it was transferred across the Dnieper.
Ukrainian officials were wary of the Russian withdrawal announced this week amid fears their soldiers could be ambushed in the city of Kherson, which had a population of 280,000 before the war.
Military analysts had also predicted that it would take the Russian military at least a week to complete the troop withdrawal.
Without referring to the events in Kherson, Mr. Zelensky said in a video message thanking the US military on Veterans Day that this “victory will be ours.”
“Your example inspires Ukrainians today to stand up to Russian tyranny,” he said.
“Special thanks to the many American veterans who have volunteered to fight in Ukraine and to the American people for the amazing support you have shown to Ukraine. With your help, we have stunned the world and are pushing back Russian forces.”
However, some sections of the Ukrainian government barely concealed their delight at the pace of the Russian withdrawal.
“The Russian army is exiting the battlefields in a triathlon mode: steeplechase, long jump, swimming,” tweeted Andriy Yermak, a senior presidential adviser.
Social media videos, apparently filmed by soldiers en route to Kherson, showed villagers embracing the Ukrainian troops.
Retaking the city could give Ukraine a strong position from which to expand its southern counteroffensive to other Russian-held territories, possibly including Crimea, which Moscow captured in 2014.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/ukraine-crowds-raise-ukrainian-flags-in-kherson-following-russian-forces-withdrawal-42137730.html Ukraine: Crowds hoist Ukrainian flags in Kherson after the withdrawal of Russian forces