Residents of Kherson celebrated the end of the eight-month Russian occupation for the third day in a row on Sunday, even as they took stock of the extensive damage left in the southern Ukrainian city by Kremlin forces in retirement.
A cheering crowd gathered in Kherson’s main square, despite the distant sounds of artillery fire that could be heard as Ukrainian forces continued their efforts to repel the invading force from Moscow.
“It’s a new year for us now,” said Karina Zaikina, 24, who wore a yellow and blue ribbon in Ukraine’s national colors on her coat. “For the first time in many months, I wasn’t afraid to come to town.”
“Finally, freedom!” said Tetiana Hitina, a 61-year-old resident. “The city was dead.
But even as locals rejoiced, evidence of Russia’s ruthless occupation was rife, and Russian forces still control around 70 percent of the wider Kherson region.
With mobile phone networks down, Zaikina and others lined up to use a satellite phone connection set up for the use of all in the square, allowing them to exchange news with family and friends to the first time in weeks.
Downtown stores were closed. With many people having fled the city during the Russian occupation, the streets of the city were sparsely populated. Many of the few who ventured out on Sunday carried yellow and blue flags. In the square, people lined up to ask the soldiers to sign their flags and rewarded them with hugs. Some cried.
Darker still, Kherson is also without electricity or running water, and food and medical supplies are in short supply. Residents said Russian troops looted the town, taking the spoils when they withdrew last week. They also destroyed key public infrastructure before retreating across the wide Dnieper River to its eastern bank. A Ukrainian official described the situation in Kherson as “a humanitarian catastrophe”.
“I don’t understand what kind of people they are. I don’t know why they did it,” said resident Yevhen Teliezhenko, draped in a Ukrainian flag.
Still, he says, “it became easier to breathe” once the Russians left.
“There’s no better holiday than what’s happening now,” he said.
Ukrainian authorities said demining of critical infrastructure was underway in the city. Reconnecting electricity supply is the priority, with gas supply already secured, Kherson regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said.
The Russian withdrawal marked a triumphant step in Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion of Moscow nearly nine months ago. Over the past two months, the Ukrainian army claimed to have taken over dozens of towns and villages north of the city of Kherson.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to keep pressure on Russian forces, reassuring residents of Ukrainian towns and villages still under occupation.
“We don’t forget anyone; we will not abandon anyone,” he said.
Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson was a major setback for the Kremlin and the latest in a series of battlefield embarrassments. It came about six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine – in violation of international law – and declared them Russian territory.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv tweeted comments from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Sunday, who described the turnaround in Kherson as “an extraordinary victory” for Ukraine and “a truly remarkable thing.”
The reversal occurred despite Putin’s recent partial mobilization of reservists, increasing the number of troops by around 300,000. This has been difficult for the Russian military to digest.
“Russia’s military leadership is largely trying and failing to integrate combat forces from many different organizations and many different types and levels of skills and equipment into a more cohesive combat force in Ukraine,” the Institute commented. Washington-based war study. , a think tank that follows the conflict
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the Kremlin would be “worried” about the loss of Kherson, but warned against underestimating Moscow. “If they need more cannon fodder, that’s what they’ll do,” he said.
Ukrainian police have called on residents to help identify collaborators with Russian forces. Ukrainian police returned to the city on Saturday, along with public broadcasting services. Ukraine’s national police chief Ihor Klymenko said around 200 officers were at work in the city, setting up checkpoints and documenting evidence of possible war crimes.
In what could be the next district to fall in Ukraine’s march on territory annexed by Moscow, the Russian-appointed administration of Kakhovka district, east of the city of Kherson, announced on Saturday that she evacuated her employees.
“Today the administration is the number one target of Ukrainian attacks,” said Moscow-based Kakhovka chief Pavel Filipchuk. “We, as an authority, are moving to safer territory, from where we will lead the district.”
Kakhovka is located on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, upstream from the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station.
John Leicester contributed to this story from Kyiv, Ukraine.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Hanna Arhirova, Associated Press
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.