MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian police returned Saturday, along with television and radio crews, to the southern city of Kherson after the withdrawal of Russian troops, part of a swift but cautious effort to make the only regional capital captured by Russia livable in months of occupation. Yet one official still described the city as a “humanitarian disaster”.
People across Ukraine awoke from a night of jubilant celebration after The Kremlin announced that its troops had withdrawn to the other side of the Dnieper River from Kherson. The Ukrainian military said it was monitoring “stabilization measures” around the city to make sure it was safe.
The Russian retreat represents a significant setback for the Kremlin some six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine in violation of international law and declared them Russian territory.
Ukraine’s national police chief Igor Klymenko said on Facebook on Saturday that about 200 officers were working in the city, setting up checkpoints and documenting evidence of possible war crimes. Police teams are also working to identify and neutralize unexploded ordnance, and a sapper was injured Saturday while demining an administration building, Klimenko said.
Ukraine’s communications watchdog said national television and radio broadcasts had resumed in the city, and an adviser to Kherson’s mayor said humanitarian aid and supplies had begun arriving from neighboring Mykolaiv Oblast.
But councilor Roman Kholovnia described the situation in Kherson as a “humanitarian catastrophe”. He said the remaining residents lacked water, medicine and food – and basics like bread remained unbaked due to a lack of electricity.
“The occupiers and collaborators did everything possible so that those people who remained in the city suffered as much as possible during these days, weeks, months of waiting” for the arrival of Ukrainian forces, Holovnia said. “Water supplies are practically non-existent.”
The chairman of Khersonoblenergo, the region’s pre-war electricity supplier, said electricity was being restored “to every settlement in the Kherson region immediately after liberation.”
Despite efforts to restore normal civilian life, Russian forces remain nearby. The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said on Saturday that the Russians had strengthened their battle lines on the eastern bank of the river after leaving the capital. About 70% of the Kherson region remains under Russian control.
Ukrainian officials from President Volodymyr Zelensky on down have warned that while special forces have reached Kherson, a full deployment to reinforce frontline troops in the city is still underway. The Ukrainian intelligence agency believed that some Russian soldiers may have stayed behind, discarding their uniforms to avoid detection.
“Even when the city has not yet been completely cleared of the presence of the enemy, the residents of Kherson themselves are already removing Russian symbols and any traces of the occupiers’ stay in Kherson from the streets and buildings,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address.
Zelensky said the first part of the stabilization work includes demining operations. He said the entry of “our defenders” – the soldiers – into Kherson would be followed by police, sappers, rescuers and energy workers, among others.
“Medicine, communications, social services are coming back,” he said. “Life is coming back.”
Photos on social media on Saturday showed Ukrainian activists removing memorial plaques put up by the occupation authorities the Kremlin installed to rule Kherson region. A Telegram post by Yellow Ribbon, a self-described Ukrainian “public resistance” movement, shows two people in a park taking down plaques depicting Soviet-era military figures.
Moscow’s announcement that Russian forces were withdrawing across the Dnieper River, which separates Kherson Oblast and Ukraine, followed a stepped-up Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south of the country. Over the past two months, the Ukrainian military has claimed to have retaken dozens of towns and villages north of the city of Kherson, and the military said stabilization activities were underway there.
Russia’s state news agency TASS quoted an official in the Kremlin-appointed Kherson administration on Saturday as saying that Khenichesk, a city on the Sea of Azov 200 kilometers southeast of Kherson, will now serve as the region’s “temporary capital”.
Ukrainian media ridiculed the announcement, with Ukrainska Pravda newspaper saying Russia had “created a new capital” for the region.
In most of Ukraine, moments of jubilation marked the withdrawal of Russian forces, after retreating from Kherson and other areas on the west bank of the Dnieper looks set to dash Russia’s hopes of launching an offensive westward toward Nikolaev and Odessa to cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.
In Odessa, the Black Sea port, residents wrapped themselves in Ukraine’s blue and yellow flags, shared champagne and held up flag-colored cards with the word “Kherson.”
But like Zelensky, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tried to tone down the excitement.
“We win battles on the field, but the war continues” he said from Cambodia, where he was attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Kuleba raised the prospect of the Ukrainian military finding evidence of possible Russian war crimes in Kherson, just as it did after Russia’s withdrawal in the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions.
“Every time we liberate part of our territory, when we enter a city liberated by the Russian army, we find torture chambers and mass graves with civilians tortured and killed by the Russian army during the occupation,” said Ukraine’s top diplomat. “It’s not easy to talk to people like this. But I said that every war ends with diplomacy, and Russia must approach negotiations in good faith.
US assessments this week showed that Russia’s war in Ukraine may have already killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
Elsewhere, Russia continued its offensive in Ukraine’s industrial east, targeting the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, the Ukrainian General Staff said.
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kirilenko said on Saturday that two civilians had been killed and four wounded in the past day as fighting raged around Bakhmut and Avdiivka, a small town that remains in Ukrainian hands.
Russia’s push to capture Bakhmut demonstrates the Kremlin’s desire for visible gains after weeks of setbacks. It would also pave the way for advances on other Ukrainian strongholds in the hotly contested Donetsk region.
In the Dnepropetrovsk region, west of Donetsk, Russian troops have again shelled populated areas near the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, the Ukrainian regional governor said.
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