Ukraine’s Zelensky calls liberation of Kherson ‘beginning of the end’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has triumphantly walked the streets of the newly liberated city of Kherson, hailing Russia’s withdrawal as the “beginning of the end of the war”.

But he also acknowledged the high price Ukrainian troops are paying for their strenuous efforts to push back the invaders.

The recapture of Kherson was one of Ukraine’s greatest successes in the nearly nine-month war and dealt another serious blow to the Kremlin.

It could serve as a springboard for further advances into occupied territory.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, center right, honors a soldier during his visit to Kherson, Ukraine (Ukrainian Presidential News Agency via AP)

US President Joe Biden called it a “significant victory” for Ukraine.

“I can only applaud the courage, determination and capacity of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian army,” he said on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia.

“They’ve been really great. … we will continue to give the Ukrainian people the opportunity to defend themselves.”

Large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine are still under Russian control, and the city of Kherson itself remains within range of Moscow’s shells and missiles.

Heavy fighting raged elsewhere in Ukraine.

The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the town of Oleshky, in Russian-occupied territory across the river from Kherson, came under heavy artillery fire.

In Kherson, Mr. Zelensky presented medals to soldiers and posed for selfies with them while striking a defiant tone.

“This is the beginning of the end of the war,” he said.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky listens to the national anthem during his visit to Kherson, Ukraine (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service via AP)

“We are coming step by step to all temporarily occupied areas.”

But he also grimly noted that the fighting has “taken away our country’s best heroes”.

The end of the Russian occupation of the city – the only provincial capital seized since the Russian invasion in February – has led to days of celebration.

But as winter approaches, the remaining 80,000 residents are without heating, water and electricity, and are short of food and medicine.

Mr. Zelensky says the city is riddled with booby traps and mines.

And Ukrainian authorities say there are signs of atrocities, as in other liberated areas.

Russian troops “destroyed everything in their path, destroyed the entire electricity grid,” Zelensky said.

Communications operators said cell phone service is being restored and the regional governor said a public wireless Internet access point would begin operating on Tuesday.

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Residents gather next to an internet hotspot in Kherson, southern Ukraine (Bernat Armangue/AP)

The Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine won “a major victory” by retaking the city and other areas west of the Dnieper River, but the Washington-based think tank noted that “it is by no means the minimal territory has liberated that which is essential to the war”. its future security and economic survival”.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned during a visit to The Hague that “we should not make the mistake of underestimating Russia”.

“Russian armed forces retain significant capacity and a large number of troops, and Russia has shown its willingness to sustain significant casualties,” he said.

In Ankara, Turkey, CIA Director Bill Burns met with his Russian intelligence counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin, to underline the consequences if Moscow deployed a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, a White House National Security Council official said.

The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr Burns and Mr Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR spy agency, were not discussing a settlement of the war.

Their meeting was the highest face-to-face meeting between US and Russian officials since before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion.

While U.S. officials have warned for months about the prospect that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine amid battlefield setbacks, Biden administration officials have repeatedly said nothing has changed in U.S. intelligence assessments that suggest Putin imminent plans to deploy nuclear weapons.

Mr. Zelensky’s journey to Kherson was another of a series of unexpected visits to front-line areas at crucial moments of the war.

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Volodymyr Zelensky during his visit to Kherson (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service via AP)

This was loaded with symbolism and the communal touch – clearly aimed at boosting the morale of soldiers and civilians alike.

In one video, a visibly moved Mr. Zelensky stood with his hand on his heart and sang the national anthem in Kherson as troops saluted and stood at attention.

A soldier steadily raised the yellow-blue Ukrainian flag.

People with flags draped over their shoulders cheered, cried and shouted in gratitude as Mr. Zelensky walked by.

“It’s great. We’ve been waiting for him for nine months. Thank you,” said resident Danila Yuhrenko.

Serhii Yukhmchuk, 47, said he and his wife spent the occupation mainly at home to avoid interacting with the Russians and protested by refusing to use the Russian ruble as currency.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on Mr Zelensky’s visit, saying only that “you know that this is the territory of the Russian Federation”.

Russia illegally annexed the Kherson region and three other Ukrainian provinces earlier this year, in addition to annexing the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

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Local residents greet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during his visit to Kherson (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service via AP)

In his speech on Sunday night, Zelensky said that “detectives have already documented more than 400 Russian war crimes and the bodies of both civilians and military have been found”.

“In the Kherson region, the Russian army left behind the same atrocities as in other regions of our country,” he said.

“We will track down and bring to justice every murderer. No doubt.”

Residents said Russian troops looted the city and destroyed key infrastructure before retreating across the wide Dnieper River to the eastern bank last week.

Reconnecting the electricity supply is the priority, said regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevich.

The arrival of winter makes the situation more difficult, with Stoltenberg saying that Putin aims to “leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter”.

Biden said he expected things to slow down a bit militarily “because of the winter months and the inability to get around so easily.”

In the past two months, the Ukrainian army claimed to have recaptured dozens of towns and villages north of the city of Kherson, a key gateway to the Crimean peninsula to the south.

But the cutthroat war continued – with shelling, civilian casualties, and both sides reporting gains.

Russia’s defense ministry said its forces had completely taken the village of Pavlivka in the eastern Donetsk region.

Multiple Ukrainian officials have reported heavy fighting in the area in recent weeks.

In Luhansk, another eastern region annexed by Moscow, Kiev forces have recaptured 12 settlements, regional governor Serhiy Haidai said.

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