Ukrainian forces entered the city of Kherson on Friday as Russian forces retreated in haste. Villagers came out of hiding to welcome the Ukrainian troops and recounted horror stories of Russian soldiers killing civilians and looting homes.
According to Serhiy Khlan, deputy for the Kherson Regional Council, the city was almost fully under the control of Ukrainian forces. Multiple videos circulating on social media showed Ukrainian soldiers planting yellow-and-blue flags in the city while local residents celebrated.
Russia said Friday that it had finished pulling out its troops from the west bank of the Dnipro River and that no soldiers or equipment had been left behind.
Retreating Russian soldiers painted a different picture, however. A Russian soldier described how he and his fellow soldiers were asked to hastily change into civilian clothing so they would not be detected. Also, some of the retreating soldiers reportedly drowned in the river while trying to escape.
For those Russian troops who did not make it out of the city, “the only chance to avoid death is to immediately surrender,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate said.
Ukrainian forces have recaptured more than 40 towns in southern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday, as Russia announced it was pulling its troops from Kherson.
“The number of Ukrainian flags returning to their rightful place in the framework of the ongoing defense operation is already dozens; 41 settlements were liberated,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.
Kherson, a strategic port city on the Dnipro River, was captured within days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24. On Wednesday, Moscow announced it had made the “difficult decision” to withdraw from the west bank of the river that includes Kherson. The reports of a swift Russian withdrawal from Kherson came sooner than Western officials had predicted. U.S. Army General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated earlier this week that the retreat would take “days and maybe even weeks.”
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov had also expressed skepticism that Russia could withdraw so quickly, fearing a potential trap by Russia to lure Ukrainian forces into brutal urban combat.
For Russia, Kherson has been a significant strategic region forming a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014. Kherson is one of the four provinces that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed in September, a move the United States and other countries condemned as illegal.
Meanwhile, Reznikov told Reuters that Ukraine was planning on building up a powerful military and defense industry, and this week’s state takeovers of privately held stakes in strategic companies are part of that drive, he noted.
Ukraine is building an “army of drones” to resist Russia’s invasion, Reznikov said. In recent weeks, Moscow has aimed waves of Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones at vital Ukrainian infrastructure.
“We are trying to be like Israel — more independent during the next years,” he said Thursday in an interview in Kyiv. “I think the best answer [can be seen] in Israel … developing their national industry for their armed forces. It made them independent.”
Black Sea Grain Initiative
Rebeca Grynspan, the secretary-general of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, and Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, met with a Russian delegation Friday in Geneva to discuss Moscow’s grievances about the Black Sea grains export initiative and to address the need for unimpeded food and fertilizer exports, a U.N. spokesperson said.
The negotiations came eight days before the deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in July is due to be renewed. The accord has helped stave off a global food crisis, allowing the export of food and fertilizers from several of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
The first shipment of donated fertilizers is expected to head to Malawi in the coming week, U.N. officials said Friday, following a meeting with a Russian delegation in Geneva.
“The world cannot afford to let global fertilizer accessibility problems become a global food shortage; therefore, the U.N. calls on all actors to expedite the removal of any remaining impediments to the export and transportation of fertilizers to countries most in need,” the U.N. said.
Moscow has indicated that it could pull out of the deal, set to expire on November 19, if there is no progress addressing its concerns.
Russia suspended its participation for four days last month in response to a drone attack on Moscow’s fleet in Crimea that it blamed on Ukraine. Kyiv has not claimed responsibility and denies using the grain program’s security corridor for military purposes.
Meanwhile, the Joint Coordination Centre reported that four vessels left Ukrainian ports Friday carrying a total of 120,150 metric tons of grain and other food products under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, while five inbound vessels transited the maritime humanitarian corridor toward Ukrainian ports.
War’s heavy toll
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the conflict has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and destroyed Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.
In mid-October, the U.N. refugee agency said there were more than 7.6 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe, including 2.85 million in Russia. It said another 7 million people have been uprooted within Ukraine.
Since February, “aid workers have provided critical aid and protection services to some 13.5 million people across all regions of Ukraine,” Stephanie Tremblay, an associate U.N. spokesperson, told reporters Thursday in New York.
Late Wednesday, Milley, the U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman, estimated that about 200,000 soldiers — 100,000 Russian troops and 100,000 Ukrainian troops — have been killed in the fighting so far, Reuters reported. Milley said about 40,000 civilians caught up in the fighting have also been killed.