BLAHODATNE, Ukraine — Ukraine’s troops entered the key city of Kherson on Friday, its military said, as jubilant residents waved Ukrainian flags after a major Russian retreat.
The move puts Kyiv on the cusp of achieving one of its most significant victories of the war and deals a bitter blow to President Vladimir V. Putin, who just a month ago declared Kherson a part of Russia forever.
Videos shared by Ukrainian government officials on social media showed scenes of civilians who had endured nearly nine months of occupation cheering the arrival of a contingent of Ukrainian troops. Earlier in the morning Russia had said that the withdrawal of its forces across the Dnipro River was complete.
“Kherson is returning under the control of Ukraine, units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are entering the city,” the Ukrainian military intelligence agency said in a statement. The military later warned Russia was preparing to strike the city from new positions across the river.
The few residents who remain in Kherson have endured curfews, shortages of goods, partisan warfare and an intense campaign to force them to become Russian citizens and accept Moscow’s warped version of their culture and history.
The depth of their suffering has yet to come into focus. For months, residents interviewed by journalists have told stories of friends being abducted, children illegally deported, relatives tortured and killed. Evidence of human rights abuses has surfaced when Russian have pulled out elsewhere.
The loss of Kherson would be Russia’s third major setback of the war, following retreats from Kyiv, the capital, last spring, and from the Kharkiv region in the northeast in September. Kherson was the only provincial capital Russia had captured since invading in February, and it was a major link in Russia’s effort to control the southern coastline along the Black Sea.
Recapturing Kherson bolsters the Ukrainian government’s argument that it should press on militarily while it has Russian forces on the run, and not return to the bargaining table, as some American officials have advocated.
The dramatic scenes in Kherson came less than 48 hours after Russia’s defense minister announced that Russian troops in the city would withdraw.
Even as its soldiers fled, the Kremlin said that it still considered Kherson — which President Vladimir V. Putin illegally annexed in September — to be a part of Russia.
“This is a Russian region,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, told reporters on Friday. “It has been legally fixed and defined. There can be no changes here.”
As he spoke, Ukrainian soldiers continued to move through towns and villages in the region, greeted joyously by tearful residents who had endured nine months occupation.
Oleh Voitsehovsky, the commander of a Ukrainian drone reconnaissance unit, said he had seen no Russian troops or equipment in his zone along the front less than four miles north of Kherson city.
“The Russians left all the villages,” he said. “We looked at dozens of villages with our drones and didn’t see a single car. We don’t see how they are leaving. They retreat quietly, at night.”
Residents described a harrowing night with multiple explosions, including one that destroyed a television transmission tower. Serhiy, a retiree living in the city who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons, said in a series of text messages that conditions in the city had unraveled overnight.
“At night, a building burned in the very center, but it was not possible even to call the fire department,” he wrote. “There was no phone signal, no electricity, no heating and no water.”
BLAHODATNE, Ukraine — In the villages west of Kherson, there were signs of a hasty Russian retreat and faltering efforts to slow the Ukrainian advance on Friday.
Ukrainian soldiers explored one abandoned Russian base, in a warehouse in the village of Blahodatne, poking through heaps of clothes, books and canned goods.
Russian military uniforms were crumpled in a heap on the floor of a sleeping area. The beds had been left rumpled. Clothes dried on a clothesline.
Nearby, a warehouse was packed with green wooden boxes of hundreds of rounds of abandoned Russian mortar ammunition. Some shells had been laid out on the warehouse floor, the detonators already screwed into the explosives, prepared to be fired quickly.
“They left in a hurry,” said Serhiy, a private who asked that only his first name be made public, according to Ukrainian military protocol. “They were preparing to shoot us with this ammunition, but they didn’t have time.”
Dmytro, another private, said, “They left without a fight.”
Through the day on Friday, Ukrainian military vehicles rolled past the village, moving eastward under a low, overcast sky along the main M14 highway, leading toward Kherson.
Remnants of the long battle for the city were seen on the road into villages reclaimed by Ukraine on Wednesday.
Along the highway, birch trees had been felled by artillery, telephone cables slumped onto the road and the metal guardrails were twisted and perforated with shrapnel. .
Occasional distant thuds from artillery were heard, possibly fired from Russian positions on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. But Ukrainian media officers said that fighting was still raging a few miles from the city of Kherson. It was not immediately possible to independently verify the claim.
To the west, in Blahodatne, a small cluster of brick houses surrounded by fields on the open steppe, residents said that the Russians had withdrawn quietly overnight Wednesday to Thursday.
“There was no fighting, they left peacefully,” Yevgenia Khaidayeva, 82, said of the Russian pullback from what had been a defensive line to the northwest of Kherson city, passing just outside Blahodatne.
On Friday, a man who residents said was a local schoolteacher drove a motorcycle festooned with two Ukrainian flags, which fluttered as he sped about the village roads, honking and cheering “Glory to Ukraine!”
Not everyone was in a buoyant mood. Vadim Slabodyanyuk, a school security guard, stood leaning on a bicycle and blankly watching the Ukrainian soldiers pass by in trucks.
His mother and his father had been killed in artillery shelling from the Ukrainian Army during fighting over the spring and summer, he said. “And I buried them both under shelling” in the local cemetery, he added. He said it was difficult to accept that his own country’s forces had fired into his village.
Locals described a sense of slumping morale in the Russians stationed in their village, going back months.
Maria Akimona, 73, a retired milkmaid, recalled that over the summer, a Russian soldier had told her that he had a 1-year-old son and that he had said, “I won’t see him taking his first steps.”
She added, “I asked him what he was doing here, and he said he didn’t understand.”
The retreat of Russian forces from the key city of Kherson is a watershed moment in Ukraine’s campaign to reclaim territory in the south of the country that Moscow captured near the start of its invasion.
A vital Black Sea port and a gateway to Crimea, Kherson is important strategically. Moscow’s forced withdrawal has added resonance because Kherson was the first major city to fall to Russian forces after the start of the invasion on Feb. 24.
Here is why the pullback from the city could prove to be a significant event in a grinding war that is now in its ninth month.
The decision to withdraw is a major blow to the Kremlin.
When Russian forces stormed across the Antonivsky Bridge over the Dnipro River and into Kherson City in March, it marked their biggest success in the early days of the war. Eight months later, the city, a former shipbuilding center, was the only provincial capital that they had seized.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had hoped to use the wider Kherson region as a bridgehead for a drive farther west, to the port city of Odesa, but that failed. Still, in September, he announced that Russia had annexed all of the Kherson region and three other occupied Ukrainian territories in a move that was widely denounced as illegal.
The loss of Kherson City represents a symbolic and practical blow for the Kremlin and for the ambition to conquer all of southern Ukraine — a fact underscored by Moscow’s insistence on Friday that, even as its soldiers fled, the city was still a part of Russia.
The Ukrainian military had gradually moved to isolate Russian forces in Kherson.
Kherson had become vulnerable because it was the only land that Moscow controlled west of the Dnipro River, which bisects Ukraine. In late summer, armed with longer-range Western weapons, Ukraine began a coordinated campaign to isolate Russian forces west of the river, bombarding the bridges that Moscow used to resupply its forces in the city. At the same time, Ukrainian armored and infantry divisions began a grueling advance toward the city from the north, west and south.
But the region’s wide-open fields, crisscrossed by irrigation canals that make for excellent defensive positions, had slowed the Ukrainian approach. The arrival of fall had also turned much of the ground to mud. Analysts say that Russia had dispatched some of its most seasoned fighters to the region and stockpiled ammunition and other supplies.
Conditions have been growing more dire for civilians.
Before Russia’s invasion, Kherson’s population stood at more than 250,000. Ukrainian activists estimate that 30,000 to 60,000 people remain in the city, but it is difficult to know the real number.
Last month, the occupation authorities announced that they would relocate tens of thousands of civilians from the west side of the river to territory held more firmly by Russia. Ukrainian officials and residents said that was a pretext for forced deportations.
For those who remained, life has been growing increasingly bleak, with electricity and water supply sporadic.
Although the Kremlin had suggested that the Ukrainian people would welcome their “liberation” by Russian troops, the people of Kherson protested their arrival openly and defiantly in the early days of the war. When that became too dangerous, those efforts moved underground, but yellow ribbons — the mark of the nonviolent resistance — appeared throughout the city.
On Friday, with the Russians cleared from the streets, residents raced to the city center to unfurl their national flag outside government buildings and to await the arrival of Ukrainian troops.
KYIV, Ukraine — The Antonivsky Bridge, the main crossing over the Dnipro River in the city of Kherson, was blown up before dawn on Friday after most Russian forces retreated and just before Ukraine’s forces entered the city.
Videos and photographs posted to social media showed the bridge to be heavily damaged. It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion. Rybar, an unofficial but influential pro-war Russian military blog, reported that retreating Russian forces had destroyed it at 5 a.m., posting footage that it said showed the strike that brought it down.
One Kherson resident, who asked to be identified by his first name Ivan for security reasons, said in a text message that he had heard an extremely powerful explosion just before dawn. It was unlike anything he had heard in months of fighting.
“It was very foggy in the morning and we couldn’t see much, but people from Antonivka say that the roofs of the houses were taken away by the explosion wave,” Ivan said, referring to the area around the bridge.
The apparent destruction of the bridge left any Russians remaining in the city with only an ad hoc network of ferries and pontoon bridges across the river. The other major crossing is 50 miles to the north, at the Kakhovka dam.
Ukrainian troops were closing in on the dam from the north, but as of Friday afternoon it still appeared to be under the control of Russian forces.
Control of river crossings and the bridges that span them has proved a critical factor throughout the course of the war. Paramount among them has been the Antonivsky Bridge.
It had been the main transit route for Russian supplies coming in from Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, to Kherson, the only major city that Moscow managed to seize after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia launched his invasion in February.
When Ukraine began its southern counteroffensive in late August, it started by targeting the bridge as part of a broader effort to isolate Russian forces based west of the Dnipro River, which runs the length of Ukraine and bisects it into east and west.
As long-range Western weapons systems arrived en masse, Ukraine pounded Russian ammunition depots and command-and-control centers behind the front lines, weakening Russia’s hold on the region.
Throughout, it sought to keep the bridge under Ukrainian control, making it difficult and risky for the Russians to move large amounts of equipment or forces over the span. The Ukrainian military has been careful not to destroy it, apparently wanting to preserve it, in part, to pursue departing Russian forces.
Residents said that the destruction of the bridge gave a measure of confidence that Moscow’s troops would not soon be back. Russian troops could attack the city from across the river, locals said, but the occupation appeared to be at an end.
A few hours after the bridge was blown up, residents took to the streets, flags in hand, awaiting the arrival of the Ukrainian Army.
MYKOLAIV, Ukraine —
Even as Russian troops fled the strategic city of Kherson and Ukrainian forces moved in, the Russians were still heaping misery on Mykolaiv, a Black Sea port city in Ukrainian-held territory only about 50 miles away.
On Friday, when Ukrainians were celebrating victory in Kherson, seven Ukrainians died from a Russian missile strike in Mykolaiv.
Though the Russians have never taken control of Mykolaiv, it has been relentlessly bombed by Russian forces since the first days of the conflict.
Friday’s attack fit the same pattern as countless others. In the middle of the night, a barrage of Russian missiles tore across the night sky, heading straight toward a Ukrainian city as its people were sleeping.
Nataliia Akimina, who was working a guard shift outside a large garage near Mykolaiv’s train station on Friday, said she saw the missiles streak right above her head around 3 a.m.
“I heard the shriek and all the dogs started barking. Actually, the dogs started barking right before I heard it,” she said.
One of the missiles slammed into a five-story residential apartment block on Prospekt Myru, or, in English, Peace Avenue. No known military targets were nearby.
Since the war began in February, Mykolaiv has been bombed all but 44 days, officials said. More than 150 people have been killed, and hundreds more wounded.
The dead on Friday included an electrician and his wife, whose birthday was today; several older residents who had refused to leave Mykolaiv; and one retired military man known as Uncle Hena.
Oleksandr Sviezhentsev, a crane operator who owns the apartment next door, used to talk to Uncle Hena all the time.
“We used to sit right there, on that bench,” he said as he stabbed his finger toward a green wooden bench, now surrounded by broken tables and ripped apart walls. “He was good.”
As rescue workers combed through the rubble from the missile strike, thousands of people lined up at different places throughout the city, waiting for water. Home to half a million people before the war and now maybe half that, Mykolaiv has no drinkable tap water because the Russian army blew up all freshwater pipes supplying the city in April. That has left the people here dependent on handouts.
In one shopping center parking lot, a huge crowd gathered after two truckloads of bottled water arrived. The crowd was dressed in heavy coats. Their puffs of breath were visible in the thin wintry air. They trudged forward as one.
“Don’t panic!” a soldier yelled from a megaphone, standing by the trucks. “There is enough for everyone. But don’t circle back in the line to take more.”
Viktoriia Bas waited with two children.
“It’s all misery. The schools are closed and learning is online, but we have no internet at home. My husband works at a carwash but business is bad, so each day he brings home only 200 hryvnias,” she said, about five dollars.
WASHINGTON — American and European officials say that serious peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are unlikely in the near future, even as the Biden administration tries to fend off growing questions from some members of Congress about the U.S. government’s open-ended investment in the war.
Russian and Ukrainian officials have made separate public comments in recent days about potential peace negotiations, more than six months after their last known direct talks fell apart. But U.S. officials say that they do not believe talks will begin soon and that both sides think continued fighting, for now, will strengthen their eventual negotiating positions.
They also concede that it is difficult to envision terms of a settlement that Ukraine and Russia would accept.
Ukrainian officials are optimistic about their military prospects after making unexpectedly large gains this fall. Their morale soared again on Wednesday, when Russia ordered its forces to retreat from the southern city of Kherson.
Perhaps more important, American and European officials say, Ukraine’s population has been hardened by Russia’s devastating military campaign, which has destroyed civilian areas and resulted in massacres, rape and looting. Even if Ukrainian leaders were prepared to make concessions to bring the fighting to an end, their people are not disposed to accept that, the officials say.
American officials say Russia’s recent attacks on critical infrastructure have made negotiations less likely by eroding any public support for compromise.
The White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, announced another $400 million in military aid for Ukraine on Thursday, including desperately needed air defense systems, in a move underscoring Washington’s commitment to Ukraine after this week’s U.S. midterm elections.
The Pentagon said that the package, the 25th drawdown of matériel from Defense Department stockpiles since August 2021, would include Avenger air defense vehicles that fire Stinger missiles and more missiles for HAWK air defense systems already being provided by Spain.
“With Russia’s unrelenting and brutal air attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure, additional air defense capabilities are critical,” the Pentagon said in a statement, noting that the latest package brings to $19.3 billion the amount of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration.
Out of the billions of dollars in weapons the White House has shipped to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, perhaps none have attracted as much attention as the HIMARS, an advanced rocket launcher that Ukrainian troops have used to devastating effect, hitting targets far behind the lines like ammunition depots and bridges.
Last week, the Pentagon announced that the Defense Department was also setting up a new group to oversee how the United States and its allies train and equip the Ukrainian military.
This new command, called the Security Assistance Group-Ukraine, or SAG-U, will be based in Germany and report to U.S. European Command, which oversees all military operations on the continent and reports directly to the secretary of defense. With a staff of about 300, it will be focused on one mission: to help train and equip Ukraine’s military.
The package will also provide 21,000 more unguided howitzer shells, 500 precision-guided shells and 10,000 mortar rounds for Ukrainian artillery crews. Additionally, the Pentagon will send 100 more Humvee trucks, 400 grenade launchers, 20 million rounds of ammunition for Ukrainian assault rifles and machine guns, and cold-weather gear to help Ukrainian soldiers fight through the coming winter.
The Pentagon also said on Thursday that senior military officials from more than 40 countries would meet virtually next week to discuss how their governments can continue to provide arms, ammunition and equipment to Ukraine.
The meeting will be held under the auspices of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which the U.S. Defense Department created after Russia invaded the country in late February.
New York Times November 11, 2022