Jubilant residents welcomed Ukrainian troops arriving in the center of Kherson on Friday after Russia abandoned the only regional capital it had captured since its invasion began in February.
“Today is a historic day. We are getting the south of the country back, we are getting Kherson back,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an evening video address.
“As of now, our defenders are on the outskirts of the city, and we are very close to entering. But special units are already in the city,” he said.
Russia said it had withdrawn 30,000 troops across the Dnipro River without losing a single soldier. But Ukrainians painted a picture of a chaotic retreat, with Russian troops ditching their uniforms, dropping weapons and drowning while trying to flee, Reuters reported.
The withdrawal marked the third major Russian retreat of the war and the first to involve yielding such a large occupied city in the face of a major Ukrainian counter-offensive that has retaken parts of the east and south.
Two men hoisted 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 defense intelligence agency said Kherson was being restored to Ukrainian control and ordered any remaining Russian troops to surrender to Kyiv’s forces entering the city.
Locals had placed Ukrainian flags in the square as news of the end of more than eight months of occupation filtered out.
“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes! Glory to the Nation!” one man shouted in another video verified by Reuters.
Zelenskiy said measures to make Kherson safe – in particular, removing what he called a large number of landmines – would start as soon as possible.
Dmitry Rogozin, a senior Russian official giving military advice to two occupied regions of Ukraine that Moscow claims as its own, said on Friday that the withdrawal across the Dnipro was painful but necessary, RIA news agency said, and suggested Moscow could regroup and launch another offensive.
“We must carry out this task, hoping that when we gather our strength, when new weapons arrive, when well-trained mobilized units arrive, when volunteers arrive, we will rally and take back this land,” the agency cited him as saying.