Russia says latest retreat in Ukraine is complete
Russia said its troops have finished retreating from the western bank of the river dividing Ukraine’s southern Kherson region.
It allows Ukrainian forces to move cautiously toward reclaiming the country’s only Russian-occupied provincial capital in what would be a major victory.
In a statement carried by Russian state news agencies, Russia’s defence ministry said the withdrawal was completed at 5am on Friday and no military equipment was left behind.
The pullback, which comes two months after Russian forces withdrew from eastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, represents another huge setback for Moscow in its eight-and-a-half-month war in Ukraine.
Reports have emerged of residents hoisting Ukrainian flags in places the Russians retreated from, including the city of Kherson.
A Ukrainian regional official, Serhii Khlan, said he was told the flags are “appearing en masse all over the place”.
He disputed a Russian claim retreating forces took all their equipment with them, saying he was told “a lot” of hardware got left behind.
Mr Khlan, who spoke to journalists from outside the city, said he heard some Russian troops were also left behind and had dressed in civilian clothes, possibly with plans to engage in acts of sabotage.
He said their exact number was unclear.
The Kremlin remained defiant on Friday, insisting the development in no way represents an embarrassment for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Moscow continues to view the entire Kherson region as part of Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
He said the Kremlin does not regret holding festivities just over a month ago to celebrate the illegal annexation of Kherson and three other occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine.
Despite abandoning their positions on the western bank, Russian forces still control about 70% of the Kherson region.
Shortly before the Russian announcement, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation in the province as “difficult”.
It reported Russian shelling of some of the villages and towns Ukrainian forces reclaimed in recent weeks during their counteroffensive in the Kherson region.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s army said Russian forces also left looted homes, damaged power lines and mined roads in their wake.
On Thursday, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak predicted the departing Russians would seek to turn Kherson into a “city of death” and continue to shell it after relocating across the Dnieper River.
Ukrainian officials were wary of the Russian pullback announced this week, fearing their soldiers could get drawn into an ambush in Kherson city, which had a prewar population of 280,000.
Military analysts had also predicted it would take Russia’s military at least a week to retreat.
Without referencing events unfolding in Kherson, Mr Zelensky said in a video message thanking US military personnel on Veterans Day that “victory will be ours”.
“Your example inspires Ukrainians today to fight back against 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 given Ukraine.
“With your help, we have stunned the world and are pushing Russian forces back.”
However, some quarters of the Ukrainian government barely disguised their glee at the pace of the Russian withdrawal.
“The Russian army leaves the battlefields in a triathlon mode: steeplechase, broad jumping, swimming,” Andriy Yermak, a senior presidential adviser, tweeted.
Social media videos apparently filmed by soldiers on routes toward Kherson showed villagers hugging the Ukrainian troops.
Recapturing the city could provide Ukraine a strong position from which to expand its southern counteroffensive to other Russian-occupied areas, potentially including Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
From its forces’ new positions on the eastern bank, however, the Kremlin could try to escalate the war, which US assessments showed may already have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
A Russian S-300 missile strike overnight killed seven people in Mykolaiv, a city about 42 miles from Kherson’s regional capital, Mr Zelensky’s office said on Friday morning.
Rescue crews sifted through the rubble of a five-storey residential building in search of survivors.
Standing in front of what used to be his family’s apartment, Roman Mamontov, 16, awaited news about his missing mother.
He said he found “nothing there” when he opened an apartment door to look for his mother after the missile hit.
Friday was her 34th birthday, the teenager said.
“My mind was blank at that moment. I thought it could not be true,” he said.
“The cake she prepared for the celebration is still there.”
Mr Zelensky called the missile strike “the terrorist state’s cynical response to our successes at the front”.
“Russia does not give up its despicable tactics and we will not give up our struggle. The occupiers will be held to account for every crime against Ukraine and Ukrainians,” Mr Zelensky said.
The Russian defence ministry did not acknowledge hitting a residential building in Mykolaiv, saying only that an ammunition depot was destroyed “in the area of the city”.
The president’s office said Russian drones, rockets and heavy artillery strikes across eight regions killed at least 14 civilians between Thursday morning and Friday morning.
The state of the key Antonivskiy Bridge linking the western and eastern banks of the Dnieper in the Kherson region remained unclear on Friday.
Russian media reports suggested the bridge was blown up following the Russian withdrawal; pro-Kremlin reporters posted footage of the bridge missing a large section.
But Sergei Yeliseyev, a Russian-installed official in the Kherson region, told the Interfax news agency “the Antonivskiy Bridge hasn’t been blown up, it’s in the same condition”.
General Ben Hodges, former commanding general of US army forces in Europe, described the retreat from Kherson as a “colossal failure” for Russia and said Russian military commanders should have pulled all their forces out of the city “weeks ago” to put the Dnieper River between them and Ukraine’s advancing troops.
Mr Hodges, speaking in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, said he expects Ukrainian commanders will work to keep the pressure on Russia’s depleted forces in the weeks ahead, ahead of a possible future push next year for Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014.
Russia is “going to have a very difficult time over the next several months continuing to hold back a very confident Ukrainian military that has a strong wind in their back” in the wake of the offensive for Kherson, he said.
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