Ukrainian troops were greeted by joyous residents in the centre of Kherson on Friday after Russia abandoned the only regional capital it had captured since its invasion in February.
Russia said it had withdrawn 30,000 troops across the Dnipro River without losing a single soldier, but Ukrainians painted a picture of a chaotic retreat, with Russian troops ditching their uniforms, abandoning weapons and drowning while trying to flee.
Video footage verified by Reuters showed dozens of Ukrainians cheering and chanting victory slogans in Kherson’s central square, where the apparent first Ukrainian troops to arrive snapped selfies in the crowd.
Two men lifted a female soldier on their shoulders and tossed her into the air. Some residents wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags. One man was weeping with joy.
Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency said Kherson was returning to Ukrainian control and ordered any remaining Russian troops to surrender to Ukrainian forces entering the city.
Locals had placed Ukrainian flags in the square as news of the end of more than eight months of occupation filtered out.
“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes! Glory to the Nation!” one man shouted in another video verified by Reuters.
As Ukrainian forces surged forward during one of the most rapid and humiliating Russian retreats of the war, villagers came out of hiding to describe how Russian troops had killed residents and looted homes.
At the newly recaptured village of Blahodatne reached by Reuters 20 km (12 miles) north of Kherson, Ukrainian soldiers were taking over positions dug by the Russians. At the entrance of the village, Ukrainian troops looked over a large stockpile of 120 mm mortar shells abandoned by the Russians in a dilapidated warehouse.
Serhiy Khlan, a member of Ukraine’s regional council for Kherson, said the regional capital was now almost fully under the control of Ukrainian forces.
A large number of Russian soldiers had drowned in the river trying to escape and others had changed into civilian clothing, he said, advising residents not to leave their homes while searches for remaining Russian troops took place.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said “saboteur operations cannot be ruled out” by Russian troops in civilian clothes.
Earlier, the Russian defence ministry said it had finished its withdrawal from the western bank of the Dnipro river, where Kherson city lies, just two days after Moscow announced the retreat.
“Not a single unit of military equipment or weapons have been left on the right (western) bank. All Russian servicemen crossed to the left bank,” it added, saying that Russia had not suffered any loss of personnel or equipment.
Pro-Russian war bloggers had reported late on Thursday that Russian forces crossing the river were coming under heavy fire from Ukrainian forces. The Russian ministry said Ukrainian forces had struck Dnipro River crossings five times overnight with U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket systems.
Ukraine’s advance unfolded far more rapidly than Ukrainian officials had suggested just hours earlier. Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov had 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.
“They managed to scarper, the scum,” tweeted Oleksiy Arestovych, an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “There are not many prisoners, mainly losses. But trophies enough.”
There was no sign of Russian forces when Reuters reached Blahodatne. Relieved villagers recounted life under occupation, saying about 100 Russians had held the village for eight months. The Russians had withdrawn without a fight on Wednesday and Ukrainian troops moved in on Thursday, they said.
The Russians had killed a man who had approached too close to their trenches and taken away two other men and a young woman whose fate remained unknown, the villagers said.
“For the first two months they came in and were extremely aggressive,” said Serhii Kalko, 43, adding that Russian soldiers fired in the air as they walked down the streets.
The Russian troops had also broken into vacant homes and looted them, removing furniture, televisions, stoves and refrigerators, the villagers said.
“The Russians were stealing everything. Everything they could take they took,” a woman named Halyna, 50, recounted. “We tried not to be in their sights,” she said, adding that only about 60 of approximately 1,000 residents had remained.
The withdrawal from Kherson 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.
The only road route near Kherson across the river, the already damaged Antonivskiy bridge, collapsed. Russian military bloggers said it was probably blown up as Russian troops withdrew.
The Russian defence ministry said it had adopted “defensive lines and positions” on the eastern bank of the river, which Moscow hopes it will be able to better supply and defend.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the decision to retreat was taken by the defence ministry. Asked by reporters if it was humiliating for Putin, Peskov said: “No.”