Ukrainian forces swept into the key Kherson city Friday as Russian troops retreated east, delivering a major victory in Kyiv and marking one of President Vladimir Putin’s biggest setbacks since his invasion began.
Delighted civilians who had survived months of Russian occupation descended on Kherson’s central square, hugging newly arrived Ukrainian soldiers, taking selfies with them and waving Ukrainian flags.
Footage of the jubilant scenes emerged hours after Russia announced it had withdrawn from the western bank of the Dnipro in the strategic southern region of Kherson, leaving the regional capital of Kherson and its surroundings to the Ukrainians.
The retirement is a blow to Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital captured by Russian forces since the February invasion. Their eastward retreat across the Dnipro is ceding large swaths of land that Russia has occupied since the early days of the war and which Putin officially declared Russian territory just five weeks ago.
“The Ukrainian flag is raised in the city of Kherson. From now on, the Ukrainian flag will appear on all buildings in Kherson. This is what we dreamed of since the first days of the occupation,” said Serhiy Khlan, member of the Ukrainian regional council of Kherson.
On Friday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released a nighttime video of the celebrations in the city of Kherson, where a crowd waved flags and chanted “ZSU”, the Ukrainian acronym for the armed forces.
Posting the video on his official Telegram account, Zelensky added, “Ours. Kherson is ours.
Ukrainian forces advanced Friday through much of the Kherson region, apparently meeting little or no resistance. Video on social media from towns and villages in the West Bank region shows soldiers being greeted by civilians.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced earlier on Friday that its forces had completed their partial withdrawal from the Kherson region, following Moscow ordered the retreat Wednesday,
“In the direction of Kherson, the movement of Russian military units to the left bank of the Dnieper was completed at 05:00 [Moscow time] this morning,” the ministry said on its official Telegram channel, using the Russian spelling for the river.
“Not a single piece of military equipment or armament was left on the right [west] bank,” the statement added. “All Russian servicemen have moved to the left bank of the Dnieper.”
Social media video suggests otherwise, with Russian tanks, armored vehicles and crates of ammunition displayed by Ukrainian troops.
Ukraine claimed to have carried out attacks against retreating concentrations of Russian troops, but the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on Friday that “despite the enemy’s attempts to disrupt the transfer of Russian troops, no casualty among military personnel, arms, equipment, and materiel were permitted.
He also claimed that the Ukrainian advance had been delayed for several days and that “manpower and military equipment of the Ukrainian Armed Forces on the right bank of the Dnieper were hit by fire”.
Ukraine reported no incoming fire from the eastern bank on Friday, but said a missile attack on the town of Mykolaiv, near the border with Kherson, killed seven people early Friday.
Earlier on Friday, the Ukrainian army’s Southern Operational Command said Russian forces had “urgently loaded boats that appear suitable to cross and attempt to escape” across the river.
It was unclear whether all Russian troops had left Kherson and the wider region; Khlan said the city was “almost under the control of Ukrainian armed forces“, but warned that some Russian troops may have remained in civilian clothes.
He warned that many Russian soldiers “have thrown away their military uniforms and are now hiding in civilian clothes”.
“They will plot provocations, false flag operations in the city,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done to demine and clean up the city.” Residents of the city of Kherson who CNN spoke to in recent weeks confirmed that many Russian soldiers were wearing civilian clothes.
Ukraine’s military said it would proceed with caution in the Kherson region and warned that Russian troops were mining roads and destroying critical infrastructure. as they retreated of the region.
“The Russian invaders continue their looting of settlements from which they are withdrawing,” said spokesman for the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Oleksandr Shtupun. “The enemy is also trying to damage power lines, other means of transportation and critical infrastructure in the Kherson region.”
Images and videos posted on social media on Friday also showed that the Antonivskyi Bridge, the main conduit over the Dnipro in the Kherson region, had been destroyed.
Alexander Kots, a journalist with the pro-government Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda embedded with Russian forces, posted a video on his Telegram channel standing on the crossing, showing the entire central section of the bridge destroyed. “Behind me are the two collapsed spans (of) the bridge,” Kots said. “They probably exploded during the withdrawal of the group of Russian forces from the right bank to the left”, or from the west bank to the east bank.
Russian forces ceded around 40% of the Kherson region, which straddles the Dnipro, within days.
Now that Ukrainian forces have retaken Kherson to the Dnipro River, the two sides face each other across the river for a distance of about 250 kilometers – from the area around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to the edge of the Black Sea.
As Russian forces fled, Ukrainian troops advanced in their wake, capturing dozens of villages and settlements in the Kherson region above the Dnipro.
The Ukrainian army on Friday retook another part of the Kherson region, the village of Tyahinka near the strategic town of Nova Kakhovka, despite the destruction by Russian forces of the bridges to the village.
A video circulating on social media on Friday, geotagged and authenticated by CNN, showed Ukrainian forces being greeted by residents on the main Tyahinka highway. The village lies just 20 km west of the hydroelectric dam and bridges that cross the Dnieper at Nova Kakhovka.
A number of photos, also geotagged and authenticated by CNN, show that Ukrainian forces were able to enter the village despite the destruction of the main highway bridge and a pedestrian bridge by the Russians during their withdrawal. Dozens of bridges across the Kherson region were destroyed or disabled during the conflict.
Residents of the town of Bilozerka, on the western outskirts of the city of Kherson, hoisted a Ukrainian flag and tore down Russian propaganda billboards on Friday, according to social media videos geotagged by CNN.
One video showed a Ukrainian flag flying above a World War II memorial, while another showed residents tearing down propaganda billboards with a young girl holding a Russian flag, which read: “The Russia is here forever.”
The scenes of people saluting Ukrainian troops across the region stood in stark contrast to claims by Russian-appointed officials in Kherson six weeks ago that 87% of voters there supported integration into the Russian Federation, during a a referendum widely condemned by the international community as a fake. Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed by Russia in September.
Kyiv officials had warned that the withdrawal of Russian troops could turn the regional capital of Kherson into a “city of death” on the way out, and an official in southern Ukraine on Friday warned residents to be wary of a quick return to territory recently liberated due to the threat of mines.
“There are a lot of mines in the liberated territories and settlements,” Vitaliy Kim, head of the Mykolaiv region’s military administration, said on Telegram. “Don’t go there for no reason. There are victims.
Putin’s spokesman insisted on Friday that the region remains part of Russia, despite the Russian withdrawal.
“It’s a subject of the Russian Federation,” Dmitry Peskov said during a regular briefing with reporters. “It has been legally fixed and defined. There can be no change here.
Russia still controls much of the Kherson region – the area east of the Dnipro River.
Asked directly if Russia’s retreat was “humiliating” for President Vladimir Putin, Peskov replied, “No.”