Nov. 13, 2022

The New York Times

Lynsey Addario

KHERSON, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials were preparing on Sunday to race food, water and medicine to the city of Kherson just two days after its troops re-entered it, while the military worked to secure more of the city and assess the extent of destruction after nearly nine months of Russian occupation.

Russia captured Kherson, a symbolic and strategic prize for President Vladimir V. Putin, at the start of the war, and immediately moved to cut the city off from the world. Ukrainian officials and allies feared that once the city was liberated they would discover the signs of destruction that Russia left behind in other towns and cities.

More than eight months of war have displaced more than seven million people within Ukraine, leaving some towns and cities with less than half their population. Millions more have fled Ukraine altogether.

“Russian occupying forces and collaborators did everything possible to make those people who remained in the city suffer as hard as possible during these days of waiting, weeks of waiting, months,” Roman Golovnya, an adviser to the mayor of Kherson, said on national television.

But on Sunday, though villages outside it have been heavily hit, there were signs that Kherson had not suffered the extent of devastation faced by cities like Mariupol, which Russian forces leveled. While more than three-quarters of Kherson’s residents have fled since the war, leaving about 75,000 people, and there was limited water supply, many buildings and streets appeared intact.

The Ukrainian strategy of patiently attacking Russian forces over months, launching pinpoint strikes on their supply lines and positions, seemed to have preserved at least the fabric of the city.

Residents of Kherson told stories for the first time of enduring months of explosions and shelling, describing the extreme precision with which Ukraine used HIMARS, an advanced missile system, against Russian positions and supply lines. One woman said she remembered surviving a blast 100 yards from her.

Ukrainians targeted Russian positions in the city with the aid of a network of informants, working to avoid hitting civilians. One Russian stronghold near a hospital was leveled by Ukrainian shelling. But the blast appeared to leave the facility relatively unscathed, with its windows intact. Along Ushakova Avenue, an elegant boulevard through the city lined with trees, most of the buildings were undamaged.

The Russian repression often happened in the shadows, with residents speaking of friends and family who were detained and disappeared over nine months of Russian occupation. Ukrainian officials will surely focus on uncovering such reports, as they did in Bucha, the town near the capital where hundreds of bodies were discovered after barely a month of Russian occupation.

In Kherson, after a day of celebration on Friday, the streets were quiet. In one high-rise district, there was a lone light in a window from a kerosene lamp or a candle. With no power, there was no heat or running water. As Russia has lost territory in the war in the past two months, it has turned to indiscriminate attacks on civilians and targeting power infrastructure, leaving cities, including Kyiv, the capital, with blackouts.

Residents of Kherson filled jugs of water to carry up darkened stairwells. But, for now, neighbors were sharing what they had and Ukrainian officials said convoys of aid were being readied to be raced into the city once the roads were considered to be safe from Russian mines.

“And now the city is critically lacking first of all water, because there is practically no water supply in the city,” Mr. Golovnya said. “Now there is not enough medicine, there is not enough bread — it is not baked, because there is no electricity.”

Russian attacks have turned the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk into a “hell,” President Volodymyr Zelensky has said, drawing attention to one of the war’s most entrenched battlegrounds even as the country celebrated the recapture of the southern city of Kherson.

A rout of Russian forces in parts of the Kharkiv region in the northeast in September had raised the prospect that Ukrainian forces might advance quickly in Donetsk, one of four Ukrainian provinces, including Kherson, that President Vladimir V. Putin has illegally declared to be part of Russia.

Donetsk presents a stiff challenge, military analysts say, in part because a section of it was seized by separatists backed by Moscow in 2014 and they have had years to dig defensive positions.

“There are extremely brutal battles there every day,” Mr. Zelensky said in a speech late on Saturday. “But our units defend themselves bravely, withstand the terrible pressure of the occupiers, and maintain our defense lines.”

He named four towns, including Marinka and Avdiivka, that run from north of Donetsk’s capital to the southwest as sites of “particularly tough battles.”

There was no independent confirmation of the reports, but the head of the Ukrainian regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Sunday in a post on the messaging app Telegram that 1,204 civilians had been killed since February, mainly in missile strikes, and more than twice that number had been wounded.

Russia’s loss of Kherson city to a Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in August is a testament to the failure of Moscow to achieve its military objectives in the south of the country. Donetsk shows its struggles in the east.

The Kremlin announced in April that its military priority was to capture all of Donetsk and the neighboring region of Luhansk, which together are known as the Donbas. By July it could claim to have captured the last city in Luhansk, though Ukraine has gained some ground in the area in recent weeks. In Donetsk, by contrast, Moscow has made little recent progress. Indeed, months of fighting in the region has yielded few concrete gains for either side.

Even an attempt by Russian forces led by the Wagner Group, a private military force controlled by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is a close associate of Mr. Putin, to pierce Ukrainian defenses at the city of Bakhmut, is yet to bear fruit.

Some military analysts said that the recapture of Kherson in recent days after Russian forces withdrew under pressure might enable Ukraine to shift forces as well as artillery east to Donetsk and Luhansk.

“We shouldn’t dismiss Ukraine’s chances of achieving further gains over the winter,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a research group based in Philadelphia.

Separatists backed by Moscow declared breakaway republics in 2014 in Luhansk and Donetsk and fighting since then has created a series of jagged front lines in the region.

Russia’s defense ministry said in a report issued on Saturday that its forces had faced opposition as they advanced in two villages southwest of Donetsk city and one, Stepnoye, to its northeast. For its part, Ukraine’s general staff said in a Facebook post on Sunday that it had “repelled Russian attacks” in a string of towns and villages in the region.

The pro-Russian mayor of Horlivka, a town northeast of Donetsk city, said on Sunday on Telegram that a Ukrainian missile strike had destroyed a hotel in the town. He gave no details of casualties.

As the residents of Kherson continued to celebrate the retreat of Russian troops from the southern Ukrainian port city, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that dangers still lay ahead from Russian soldiers who were digging defenses outside the city and had left behind mines as they fled.

“It is very important now to tell all Kherson residents to be careful and not try to independently check any buildings and objects left by the occupiers,” the Ukrainian leader said in his nightly address on Saturday. “Please, dear citizens of Kherson, be careful and inform the police or rescuers about any suspicious objects you see.”

Mr. Zelensky’s plea reflected Ukrainian concerns that some Russian soldiers were still in the area, fortifying defensive positions on the other side of the Dnipro River, and that it was unclear whether they would fight, flee or surrender. Ukrainian military officials said some Russian soldiers in and around Kherson city were still actively fighting with Ukrainian forces, and that the city remained vulnerable to Russian artillery fire.

Ukrainian officials had cleared more than 2,000 explosive devices, mines, trip wires, and unexploded ammunition, Mr. Zelensky said. Ten bomb squads were active in the area, and one soldier had been wounded while working, he added.

Kherson, a vital Black Sea port and a gateway to the occupied Crimean Peninsula, was the first major city to fall to Russian forces after the start of their invasion on Feb. 24. Their retreat has left the city’s residents jubilant as Ukraine reclaims territory in the south of the country. Kyiv is in control in more than 60 settlements around Kherson, Mr. Zelensky said.

But amid the celebration, a devastating humanitarian crisis was coming into focus in Kherson, a city with a prewar population in the hundreds of thousands that has been left without basic services.

“Before fleeing from Kherson, the occupiers destroyed all critical infrastructure — communication, water supply, heat, electricity,” Mr. Zelensky said. “But we will restore everything.”

Food and medicine were also in short supply, but local officials said that they were expecting humanitarian aid to be delivered from the southern city of Mykolaiv and other nearby areas. Kherson’s current population is down to about 80,000, Roman Golovnya, an adviser to the city’s mayor, told a local television station.

Another pledge came from the head of the Ukrainian railways, Oleksandr Kamyshin, who said that crews will repair damaged tracks and rail cars. “A train to Kherson will be launched soon,” he said on the Telegram social network, without providing specifics.

Ukrainian officials also said they had restored television and radio service. “We are currently broadcasting only one channel of Ukrainian television and radio, as the primary task for us was to provide Ukrainians with access to information as quickly as possible,” said an official with the state information service, Serhiy Semerey.

Concerns also were growing on the outskirts of Kherson, where a dam about 40 miles to the northeast, in the town of Nova Kakhovka, had suffered damage from Thursday into Friday, when Russian forces retreated, according to satellite images.

For weeks, the Ukrainians and the Russians have accused the other side of planning to damage the dam. But the Ukrainians have said they have no incentive to flood their own land, and accused Moscow of preparing a “false flag” operation to blow up the dam itself. Damage to the reservoir, which holds roughly the amount of water as Utah’s Great Salt Lake, could flood as many as 80 towns, villages and cities, including Kherson.