Residents in Kherson celebrated as Ukrainian troops retook the city after Russia completed the pullback of its troops from the western bank of the Dnieper River.
On Friday, the withdrawal was completed by 5am Moscow time (02:00 GMT), and not a single military unit was left behind, Russian news agencies quoted the defence ministry as saying.
However, Ukraine has said that the retreat was less than smooth, with reports of Russian troops drowning while trying to leave.
But videos circulating social media show dozens of Ukrainians cheering victory slogans in Kherson’s central square.
Two men lifted a female soldier on their shoulders and tossed her into the air. Some residents wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags.
One man was weeping with joy.
Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted footage of residents taking down Russian posters and said, “‘Russia is forever here’, said a poster in Bilozerka near Kherson. Well, not really!
“To everyone in the world, including ASEAN where I currently am: Ukraine is gaining another important victory right now and proves that whatever Russia says or does, Ukraine will win.”
“Russia is forever here”, said a poster in Bilozerka near Kherson. Well, not really!
To everyone in the world, including ASEAN where I currently am: Ukraine is gaining another important victory right now and proves that whatever Russia says or does, Ukraine will win. pic.twitter.com/8bc4JGNajX
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) November 11, 2022
Serhiy Khlan, a deputy for Kherson Regional Council, told a briefing many Russian soldiers had been unable to leave Kherson city after months of occupation and had changed into civilian clothing.
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 pre-war population of 280,000.
Military analysts also predicted it would take Russia’s military at least a week to complete the troop withdrawal.
The Kremlin remained defiant on Friday, insisting the development in no way represented an embarrassment for President Vladimir Putin. Moscow continues to view the entire Kherson region as part of Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“This is a subject of the Russian Federation. There are no changes in this and there cannot be changes,” said Peskov, adding Moscow had “no regrets” about the move.
He added the Kremlin did not regret holding festivities just a month ago to celebrate the annexation of Kherson and three other occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine.
Russia ordered the withdrawal on Wednesday after it said attempts to maintain its position and supply troops were “futile” in the face of a mounting Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Putin proclaimed Kherson and three other regions of Ukraine as part of Russia in a triumphal ceremony at the Kremlin on September 30. Ukraine, its Western allies, and an overwhelming majority of countries at the United Nations General Assembly condemned the annexations as illegal.
Ukrainian troops reclaimed dozens of landmine-littered settlements abandoned by Russian forces in southern Ukraine and were advancing on Kherson on Friday. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an overnight video address that Ukrainian forces had liberated 41 settlements.
Ukraine’s general staff said it was keeping its latest movements under wraps but listed 12 settlements it said had been freed as of Wednesday: one of them, Blagodatne, lies 30km (20 miles) from the centre of Kherson, a port at the mouth of the Dnieper River.
“Offensive actions in the specified direction continue,” it said. “Due to the safety of the operation, the official announcement of the results will be made later.”
Russia still has 40,000 soldiers in the region and intelligence showed its forces remained in and around the city, Ukraine’s Minister of Defence Oleksii Reznikov said on Thursday.
Having previously warned the Russian retreat might be a trap, some quarters of the Ukrainian government barely disguised their glee at the pace of the 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 towards Kherson showed villagers hugging the Ukrainian troops.
Recapturing the city could provide Ukraine with 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.
The state of the key Antonovsky Bridge that links the western and eastern banks of the Dnieper remained unclear.
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 Sergey Yeliseyev, a Russian-installed official in Kherson, told the Interfax news agency “the Antonovsky Bridge hasn’t been blown up, it’s in the same condition”.