Moscow announced on Friday that its forces had completed their withdrawal from the strategic Ukrainian city of Kherson, after Ukraine said it had reclaimed dozens of landmine-littered settlements abandoned by the Russians.
The Russian defence ministry said it had finished the pullout of troops from the western bank of the Dnipro river, Russia’s state TASS news agency reported, just two days after Moscow announced the retreat.
There was no immediate comment from Ukraine, but the announcement would appear to contradict Ukrainian reports that thousands of Russian troops were still on the west side of the river.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters on Thursday it would take at least a week for Russia to pull out of Kherson. He estimated Russia still had 40,000 troops in the region, and said intelligence showed its forces remained in and around the city.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an overnight address that Ukrainian forces had liberated 41 settlements as they advanced through the south, indicating one of the swiftest and most dramatic shifts of control in almost nine months of war.
Reuters was not able to verify the extent of the Ukrainian advance or the status of Russia’s retreat.
Yaroslav Yanushevych, the Ukrainian governor of Kherson, posted a video on Telegram of soldiers from the 59th motorised brigade walking through the liberated village of Blahodatne, which is around 20 km (12 miles) from the outskirts of Kherson, waving Ukrainian flags.
In the village of Posad Pokrovskiy, reached by Reuters about 12 km (7 miles) back up the road, wrecked buildings and a destroyed truck sitting on the highway to Kherson marked the former front line. A Ukrainian flag fluttered above a bus stop pitted by bullet holes.
Homes and buildings on both sides of the road were gutted by shellfire and shattered branches hung from the trunks of trees lining the highway. Ukrainian soldiers manned checkpoints waving at passing Ukrainian military vehicles.
If any Russian troops are still on the west bank of the Dnipro, Moscow must figure out how to ferry them to safety across a wide river under fire from the advancing Ukrainians.
The already damaged Antonivskiy bridge, the only road crossing from Kherson to the Russian-controlled eastern bank of the Dnipro River, collapsed, Ukraine’s public broadcaster quoted local residents as saying. That could make it harder for Russian troops to flee while also stopping Ukrainian troops from following them across.
It is the third major Russian retreat of the war, and the first to involve abandoning such a large occupied city. Moscow’s forces were driven in March from the outskirts of the capital Kyiv and ousted from the northeastern region of Kharkiv in September.
Kherson province is one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed from Ukraine in late September. The loss of the regional capital would appear to end dreams expressed by some Russians of seizing Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast, although Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the region’s annexed status remained unchanged.
Ukrainian military analyst Yuri Butusov said the city of Kherson was within range of Ukrainian artillery and the closest Ukrainian reconnaissance patrols were less than 18 km (11 miles) from the city.
“Ukrainian forces are trying to break into Kherson on the shoulders of the retreating enemy,” he said. “In the area of the river crossings, where Russian troops are concentrated, firefights are breaking out.”
Explosives experts were going into areas retaken from Russian forces to rid them of thousands of unexploded landmines they left behind, Butusov said.
In his address, Zelenskiy said that 170,000 square km (66,000 square miles) remained to be de-mined, including places where there was still fighting and “where the enemy will add landmines before its withdrawal, as is the case now with Kherson”.
The region’s Ukrainian-appointed governor, Yaroslav Yanushevych, said on Telegram that Russian troops had “taken away public equipment, damaged power lines and wanted to leave a trap behind them”.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said on Thursday Russia wanted to turn Kherson into a “city of death”, mining everything from apartments to sewers and planning to shell the city from the other side of the river.
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians, though its forces have pulverised Ukrainian cities in a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions.
Russian fired missiles overnight at Mykolaiv, the nearest big Ukrainian-held city to Kherson, hitting a residential area and killing six people, Ukrainian officials said.
Rescuers were digging through the debris of an apartment block for survivors on Friday after the Russian attack, Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych said. A Reuters reporter in the city heard three impacts, the first around 3 a.m. local time.
The dead included a married couple whose 16-year-old daughter survived because she was sleeping in another room of their apartment, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said on Telegram.
Ukraine’s defence minister told Reuters he did not know when the war would end but that it was clear to him how it would end.
“It will be victory for Ukraine. It will (be) when we are in a position to de-occupy or liberate all Ukrainian temporarily occupied territories to the borders of 1991, including Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk,” Reznikov said.