Peter Beaumont, Luke Harding, Pjotr Sauer and Isobel Koshiw
11 Nov 2022
In extraordinary scenes, crowds of jubilant residents greeted Ukraine’s armed forces as they reached the centre of Kherson, as Russia’s retreat from the key strategic city appeared to have descended into chaos. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, hailed a “historic day” as he confirmed on Friday evening that special units of armed forces were already in the city and others stationed on its approaches. “We are in the process of taking Kherson back,” he said in a video address.
A crowd of residents, some tearful, earlier raised Ukrainian flags around the central Svoboda Square, and gathered to greet the first troops to reach the city centre, embracing the arriving Ukrainian soldiers. Chanting “Glory to the ZSU [Ukraine’s armed forces],” two men picked up one female soldier on their shoulders and tossed her into the air. Other residents wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags, as one man wept with joy.
Elsewhere, crowds lining Kherson’s streets unfurled a giant blue and yellow banner as cars took to the streets honking their horns in celebration. Confirming the liberation of the city, the country’s defence ministry announced on social media: “Kherson is returning to Ukrainian control and units of the armed forces of Ukraine are entering the city.” It added that its artillery had clear views over Russia’s escape routes, warning: “Any attempts to oppose the armed forces of Ukraine will be stopped.”
The scenes unfolded at the end of an emotionally charged and dramatic 24 hours in which Russian forces pulled back from the city – the only major city Moscow had managed to take in almost nine months of war – in disarray and Ukrainian forces advanced through the suburbs to the historic heart of Kherson.
For Russia, the liberation of Kherson marked the latest, and most serious, of a string of battlefield defeats amid widely circulated images of Russian infantry hurrying to escape over a soon-to be-destroyed pontoon over the Dnipro River in the morning mist, as Russia’s defence ministry said it had withdrawn about 30,000 troops.
The retreat comes six weeks after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had announced the annexation of Kherson and three other regions at a high-profile ceremony in Moscow.
As Ukrainian armour and columns of infantry closed on Kherson throughout Friday morning, they were cheered by flag-waving civilians in the towns, villages and suburbs of Kherson they had liberated.
The liberation of Kherson was cheered around Ukraine, not least by those who had been forced to flee the city during the brutal Russian occupation.
Olena Kovalenko, who had left the city in September for the west of Ukraine, told the Guardian: “This is the best day ever. We are all crying tears of joy. I dreamed of this day but thought it wouldn’t happen so fast. I can’t wait to go back and see everyone I love.”
Amid reports of wounded Russian soldiers being abandoned or taken prisoner and Ukrainian shelling of troops crossing the Dnipro River, one Russian soldier told of some units being told to escape any way they could after claims by one Ukrainian official that some Russian troops had drowned trying to cross the river.
Amid reports that some Russian soldiers may have stayed behind out of uniform, Ukrainian intelligence posted a Russian-language statement on social media urging any Russian troops left in Kherson to surrender because Ukrainian forces “are entering the city”. “Your command left you to the mercy of fate. Your commanders urge you to change into civilian clothes and try to escape from Kherson on your own. Obviously, you won’t be able to,” the intelligence statement read.
Despite the Ukrainian advance into Kherson city itself, elsewhere in the region fighting continued as the Ukrainian army pounded retreating soldiers as they sought to cross to the left bank of the Dnipro River.
In Mylove, a Guardian reporter saw an armoured column of 40 Ukrainian vehicles including several T-72 tanks heading in the direction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant – a key crossing point – and the still-occupied city of Nova Kakhovka.
Amid booms every few minutes, Serhiy Demcuk, a villager, said :“You get used to it.” “No you don’t,” his wife Alesia interjected. “It’s terrible.”
As the Russian ministry of defence announced that the withdrawal was complete, key bridges and crossings over the Dnipro were blown up, including the Antonivskiy Bridge, a pontoon beneath it and a nearby railway span.
Images of the retreat showed lines of distant Russian infantry hurrying over the Antonivskiy pontoon, and columns of vehicles rushing to use the crossings at night-time, and small groups of captured Russian soldiers.
In its daily briefing cited by Russian news agencies, the ministry said all forces and equipment had been transferred to the left, or eastern, bank of the river. In a claim that could not be verified, it said the withdrawal was completed by 5am Moscow time (2am GMT) on Friday.
The Kremlin has remained defiant, denying the retreat represents an embarrassment for the president, Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Moscow continued to view the Kherson region as part of Russia.
Kherson was the first major urban hub to fall to Russian troops after Putin announced Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine in February, and it was the only regional capital captured by Russian forces. It was one of the areas annexed by Russia in September, a move denounced by the international community.
Serhiy Khlan, a deputy for Kherson’s regional council, told a news briefing that some Russian soldiers had been unable to leave the city after months of occupation, and had changed into civilian clothing. “The number of these people is not known,” he said, urging local residents to stay at home while Ukrainian troops cleared the city.
As the Russians left, a large Ukrainian flag was hung in the Kherson city centre overnight, possibly by partisans who have been active in the city, as residents largely stayed indoors amid some reports Ukrainian special forces had entered the city.
With Ukrainian estimates suggesting half of the Russian soldiers had been withdrawn across the river by Thursday evening, footage posted on Russian social media channels suggested panic in some units as they scrambled to escape.
As the main body of Ukrainian forces, advancing from three directions, took village after village on its approach, residents tore down pro-Russian propaganda posters and embraced the advancing troops in extraordinary and emotional scenes.
Russia announced on Wednesday it would withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro that includes Kherson city. One unidentified Russian soldier who posted an account of the retreat described one unit throwing away its uniforms while heaping blame on those in Russia rationalising the retreat. “Hey everyone, guys, I’m alive,” the soldier said, his face visibly tired against the backdrop of a night sky. “What can I say? Everything I’ve been saying has happened. Those trying to find justification for this, comparing it with Borodino [the bloody battle during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia] or anything else can, you can tell them to go fuck themselves. Those who think everything will be fine next, tell them to go fuck themselves. They are digging fortifications in Crimea and in one unit, which I won’t name, the last order was to change into civilian clothing and fuck off any way you want.”
Other Russian social media channels also used the word “panic” to describe the situation among some units waiting to cross amid warnings that the new Russian defensive lines on the east bank of the Dnipro may soon be attacked. Ukrainian officials, however, had earlier suggested it would take far longer for Russia to complete its withdrawal.
In an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Oleksii Reznikov said Russia had 40,000 troops in the Kherson region (twice the number of other estimates) and that it still had forces in and around the city and on the west bank of the Dnipro despite announcing their retreat. “It’s not that easy to withdraw these troops from Kherson in one day or two days. As a minimum, [it will take] one week,” he said, adding it was difficult to predict Russia’s actions and that Kyiv was focused on its own plan.
Reznikov said such an exit would free forces from both sides to fight elsewhere and suggested Russia could beef up its units in the neighbouring region of Zaporizhzhia that had also been partially occupied for months. “The winter will slow down every activity on the battlefield for all sides. It’s beneficial for all sides. You will have a rest,” he said.
He predicted Ukraine would come out of the lull strong, reinforced by thousands of soldiers being trained in Britain. “We will use this time with a maximum result for our armed forces, for regrouping, for refreshing and for rotation, and we will prepare them well.”
Ukrainian witnesses, however, suggested that retreating Russian convoys were still driving through Kherson city through the night at high speed to reach crossing points.
The retreat came as six people were killed in a Russian rocket attack on an apartment building in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv early on Friday, the local mayor, Oleksandr Senkevych, said.
Rescuers were digging through the debris for survivors, he wrote on the Telegram messaging app.