Sullivan added, however, that he had yet to verify Russian claims that it had withdrawn its forces from the west bank of the Dnipro.
“But it looks like the Russians executed that pullout,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One as President Joe Biden headed for a summit in Cambodia. “And it looks like the Ukrainians have just won an extraordinary victory, where the only regional capital that Russia captured in this war is now back under a Ukrainian flag.”
Ukraine‘s Defense Intelligence Agency said Kherson was being restored to Ukrainian control and ordered all remaining Russian troops to surrender to Kyiv forces entering the city.
A Ukrainian flag flew above a monument in a central square in Kherson for the first time since the city was captured in early March. Other videos showed villagers embracing troops en route to town.
“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes! Glory to the Nation!” a man shouted in another video verified by Reuters.
Zelensky said measures to secure Kherson – in particular, clearing what he called a large number of landmines – would begin as soon as possible.
Despite the colossal tasks ahead of them, “medicine, communications, social services are coming back. … Life returns,” he said.
Dmitry Rogozin, a senior Russian official giving military advice to two occupied regions of Ukraine that Moscow claims as its own, said the withdrawal across the Dnipro was painful but necessary, the RIA news agency said, and suggested that Moscow might regroup and launch another offensive.
“We must carry out this task, hoping that when we gather our forces, when new weapons arrive, when well-trained mobilized units arrive, when volunteers arrive, we will rally and take back this land,” he said. he declares.
tears of relief
As Ukrainian forces advanced in one of the most humiliating Russian retreats of the war, villagers emerged from hiding and, amid tears of relief and joy, described how Russian troops had killed inhabitants and looted houses.
Reuters could not independently verify the accounts and the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about the allegations made by residents of the recaptured village of Blahodatne, 20 kilometers north of Kherson.
Serhii Kalko, 43, one of about 60 people who remained in Blahodatne out of a pre-war population of 1,000, was struck by the calm of the last Russian retreat. “They left in silence. They weren’t even talking to each other,” he said.
Previously, “there was shooting all the time in three directions,” said tearfully but ecstatic Halyna, a petite 81-year-old woman standing next to her rusty bicycle.
Search for Russian troops
A number of Russian soldiers drowned in the Dnipro River while trying to escape and others changed into civilian clothes, a Kherson official said, advising residents not to leave their homes while the search was on. remaining Russian troops.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian army’s southern command, said “sabotage operations cannot be ruled out” by Russian troops in civilian clothes.
Earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had completed its withdrawal from the western bank of the Dnipro River, where the city of Kherson is located, two days after Moscow announced the withdrawal.
No military equipment or weapons were left on the west bank, the ministry said. All the soldiers crossed over to the east bank, he added.
A Ukrainian regional official, Serhii Khlan, disputed the claim that the 30,000 retreating troops took the 5,000 pieces of equipment with them, saying “a lot” of equipment was left behind.
Pro-Russian war bloggers had reported late Thursday that Russian forces crossing the river came under heavy fire from Ukrainian forces. The Russian ministry said Ukrainian forces struck Dnipro crossings five times overnight with US-supplied HIMARS rocket systems.
Ukraine’s advance happened much faster than Ukrainian officials had suggested hours earlier. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Thursday that it would take Russian troops at least a week to leave Kherson.
Ukrainian social media was overflowing with messages of celebration and elation. Companies and official institutions, from the national postman Ukrposhta to the anti-corruption office, have inserted images of watermelons into their profiles. The Kherson region is famous for its watermelons.
There was no sign of Russian forces when Reuters reached Blahodatne. Villagers recounted life under occupation, saying around 100 Russians held Blahodatne for eight months.
The Russians had killed a man who got too close to their trenches and carried off two other men and a young woman whose fate remained unknown, villagers said.
“For the first two months they came and were extremely aggressive,” villager Kalko said, adding that Russian soldiers were shooting in the air as they marched through the streets.
Russian troops also broke into vacant homes and looted them, taking away furniture, televisions, stoves and refrigerators, villagers said.
Russian forces were driven from the outskirts of the capital Kyiv in March and driven from the northeast region of Kharkiv in September as the Ukrainian counteroffensive gained momentum.
Kherson province is one of four regions that Putin claims he annexed to Ukraine in late September. It is also strategically important as a land gateway to Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 and where the Moscow Black Sea Fleet is based.
Moscow forces still control about 70% of the Kherson region after the withdrawal.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the decision to withdraw from Kherson was taken by the Defense Ministry. Asked by reporters if this was humiliating for Putin, Peskov replied: “No”.
Moscow continued to consider the entire Kherson region as part of Russia, he said.
Recapturing the city of Kherson could provide Ukraine with a strong position from which to expand its counteroffensive from the south into other Russian-occupied areas, potentially including Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
However, from the new positions of its forces on the eastern bank, the Kremlin could try to intensify the war, which, according to American estimates, has already killed or injured tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers. .
General Ben Hodges, former commanding general of US Army forces in Europe, described the retreat from Kherson as a “colossal failure” for Russia and said he expected Ukrainian commanders to are working to keep pressure on Russia’s depleted forces ahead of a possible future push. for Crimea next year.
“Obviously it’s too early to plan the victory parade. But I expect that by the end of this year – so within the next, say, eight weeks – the Ukrainians will be in place to start putting in place the conditions for the decisive phase of this campaign, which is the liberation of Crimea, which I think will happen by the summer,” he said in a phone interview.