Jubilant residents planted flags and welcomed Ukrainian soldiers into the centre of Kherson on Friday after the withdrawal of Russian forces, marking a major strategic victory for Kyiv over Moscow.
“Today is a historic day,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an evening video address. “We are getting the south of the country back, we are getting Kherson back.”
Cheering citizens chanted victory slogans in the southern city’s central square, where the apparent first Ukrainian troops to arrive snapped selfies in the throng.
Videos shared on Ukrainian Telegram groups showed crowds shouting “glory to ZSU”, the acronym for the Ukrainian armed forces.
There were similar celebrations across Ukraine as the country’s defence intelligence agency said Kyiv had taken control of the area which had by Russian forces since March.
It urged Russian soldiers who might still be in the city to surrender. “Your command left you to the mercy of fate,” it said.
The news of a potential defining moment in the nine-month conflict came just hours after Russia said its troops had finished retreating from the western bank of the Dnipro river which divides the Kherson region in half.
Russia said it had withdrawn 30,000 troops without losing a single soldier.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.
The pullback, which comes two months after Russian forces withdrew from eastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, represents another huge setback for Moscow in invasion launched in February.
Yuri Sak, a senior advisor to the defence ministry, told The Independent it is an “important moment for our morale and our fight for our country”.
He said the counteroffensive in the south had been “well planned” and based on “careful reconnaissance and intelligence” but the fight had not ended.
“This is far from over, there are still tens of thousands of Russians in the southern regions,” he said.
Kherson was one of the Kremlin’s first targets when the invasion was launched in February because of its strategic location bordering the Crimea, which President Putin illegally annexed in 2014.
The capture of swathes of Kherson Oblast allowed a land bridge to the Black Sea Peninsula that is home to a huge Russian military force and Black Sea Fleet.
Kherson’s main city was also the last remaining regional capital that the Kremlin had captured and held in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. Its loss deals a significant blow to the Kremlin that “annexed” the region in a high profile ceremony held in Moscow in September.
Dozens of towns across the Kherson and Mykolaiv region were also liberated on Thursday and Friday as Ukrainian forces made a cautious advance amid the news of Moscow’s withdrawal.
The Independent met civilians returning to heavily shelled areas, where nearby towns had been de-occupied for the first time since the start of the war.
In Kobzartsi, which lies next to the recently liberated town of Snihurivka, an elderly resident whose wife died from a heart attack during the fierce Russian bombardment of the village in March, returned for the first time to check on his home since he evacuated eight months ago.
“Everything is destroyed, it’s all gone,” Serhiy, 66 said in tears. “All I have left is to pay my respects to my wife’s grave.”
Another resident said that the bombardment had only stopped two days before when Snihurivka was liberated and Russian forces were pushed back.
“People are trying to return to Snihurivka but it is still heavily mined,” said Natasha, 45, who stayed in Kobzartsi despite eight months of attacks.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian military remained cautious despite the news of Friday’s advance, writing on Facebook that “advanced units have reached the western bank of the Dnipro river in some parts of Kherson region.”.
“Measures to identify and destroy the enemy in a number of settlements are ongoing,” the statement read. “Due to the safety of the operation, the official release of the results will be provided at a later date.”
The army added that Russia was fortifying its defensive lines on the east bank of Dnipro river, where their troops have withdrawn to.
Local military officials said, on the condition of anonymity, that they expected Russia to begin heavily shelling the areas they have just withdrawn from.
Videos posted on Ukrainian telegram groups purported to show Russian soldiers crossing bridges over the river Dnipro by foot. Footage also showed the destroyed remains of main bridges over the Dnipro river.
Later, Russia’s Interfax news Agency reported that more than 30,000 of its servicemen had withdrawn to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
It added Russia had not suffered any loss of personnel or equipment during the withdrawal.
The ministry did not comment on Ukrainian officials’ assertions that Russia’s retreat was chaotic and that Russian troops in Kherson had been ordered to change into civilian clothes.
Ukrainian regional official, Serhii Khlan, disputed Russia’s claim its retreating troops took all 5,000 pieces of equipment with them, saying “a lot” of hardware got left behind.
Instead the Kremlin remained defiant, insisting the withdrawal in no way represented an embarrassment for President Putin.
Despite the reality on the ground, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow continues to view the entire Kherson region as part of Russia.
He added that the Kremlin didn’t regret holding festivities just over a month ago to celebrate the “annexation” of occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine including Kherson.
President Putin, who endorsed an evacuation of civilians from Kherson city, has so far been silent about news the city has fallen, despite making several public appearance since the withdrawal was announced.