The Kremlin continued to be defiant on Friday, insisting the withdrawal in no way meant an embarrassment to Putin. Moscow continues to view the entire Kherson region as part of Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
He added that the Kremlin does not regret that it held festivities just over a month ago to celebrate the annexation of occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine, deferring all questions about Kherson’s withdrawal to the ministry. of Defense.
Putin has so far been silent on Kherson despite making several public appearances since announcing the withdrawal.
Shortly before the Russian announcement, Zelensky’s office described the situation in the province as “difficult”. It reported Russian shelling of some towns and cities that Ukrainian forces have reclaimed in recent weeks during their counter-offensive in the Kherson region.
The general staff of the Ukrainian army said Russian forces have left looted houses, damaged power lines and mined roads in their wake. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak predicted on Thursday that the outgoing Russians would try to turn Kherson into a “city of death” and continue shelling it after moving across the Dnieper River.
Ukrainian officials were wary of the Russian withdrawal announced this week, fearing their soldiers could be ambushed in the city of Kherson, which had a pre-war population of 280,000. Military analysts had also predicted that the Russian army would take at least a week to complete the withdrawal of the troops.
Without referring to the events in Kherson, Zelensky said in a video message thanking the US military on Veterans Day that “victory will be ours.”
“Your example inspires Ukrainians today to fight back against Russian tyranny,” he said. “Special thanks to the many American veterans who volunteered to fight in Ukraine and to the American people for the tremendous support you have given Ukraine. With your help, we have astonished the world and pushed back the Russian forces.”
However, some circles of the Ukrainian government could hardly hide their joy at the pace of the Russian withdrawal.
“The Russian army is leaving the battlefields in a triathlon mode: steeplechase, wide jump, swimming,” tweeted Andriy Yermak, a senior presidential adviser. Villagers can be seen embracing Ukrainian troops on social media.
Retaking the city of Kherson could provide Ukraine with a strong position from which to extend its southern counter-offensive into other Russian-occupied territories, possibly including Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
From the new positions of its forces on the eastern bank, however, the Kremlin could try to escalate the war, which US assessments have shown may have already killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
General Ben Hodges, former commander of US forces in Europe, described the Kherson withdrawal as a “colossal failure” for Russia, and said he expects Ukrainian commanders to work to keep pressure on depleted Russian forces in anticipation. of a possible future attack. for Crimea next year.
“It is certainly too early to plan the victory parade. But I expect that by the end of this year – so in the next, say, eight weeks – the Ukrainians will be on the ground to determine the conditions for the decisive phase of this campaign, namely the liberation of Crimea, from which I think it will happen by the summer,” he said in a telephone interview.
Meanwhile, a Russian S-300 missile strike killed seven people overnight in Mykolaiv, about 68 kilometers from the regional capital of Kherson, Zelensky’s office said Friday morning. Rescue teams searched the rubble of a five-story residential building in search of survivors.
Roman Mamontov, 16, stood in front of what used to be his family’s apartment, waiting for news of his missing mother.
Mamontov said he found “nothing” there when he opened the door to look for his mother after the rocket hit. Friday was her 34th birthday, the teen said.
“My head was empty at that moment. I thought it couldn’t be true,” he said. “The cake she prepared for the party is still there.”
Zelensky called the missile attack “the terrorist state’s cynical response to our successes at the front.”
“Russia is not giving up its despicable tactics. And we will not give up our fight. The occupiers will be held accountable for any crime against Ukraine and Ukrainians,” Zelensky said.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not acknowledge that a residential building in Mykolaiv was attacked, saying only that an ammunition depot had been destroyed “near the city”.
Mykolaiv mayor Oleksandr Sienkevych told the AP that Russia could step up shelling of his city in light of Ukraine’s advance. “The more successful the Ukrainian military is, the lower the bar for terrorism,” he said.
Sienkevych said S-300 missiles launched from the Kherson region could reach Mykolaiv within a minute. About 149 civilians have been killed and 700 seriously injured in the city since the start of the war on February 24.
The president’s office said Russian drones, missiles and heavy artillery strikes in eight regions killed at least 14 civilians between Thursday morning and Friday morning.
The condition of the main Antonivskiy bridge connecting the western and eastern banks of the Dnieper in the Kherson region remained unclear Friday. Russian media reports suggested the bridge had been blown up after the Russian withdrawal; pro-Kremlin reporters posted footage of the bridge missing much of it.
But Sergei Yeliseyev, a Russian-installed official in the Kherson region, told Interfax news agency that the bridge had not been blown up.