As parts of the world mark Veterans Day or Armistice Day, when the guns fell silent on the Western Front in 1918, Ukrainian troops have been welcomed by the citizens of Kherson, with local armed forces reportedly having reached the center of the city this morning. Meanwhile, Russian troops continued their apparently chaotic retreat from the strategic southern locale into the night. The Kremlin says that its forces have now completely evacuated the city. Although it isn’t perfectly clear at this time, it seems that Russia also destroyed the critically important Antonivskyi Bridge during its withdrawal, dropping multiple spans into the water below.
Readers can first bring themselves up to speed on what has been happening already in this region in our latest reporting on the conflict here.
The Ukrainian flag was first raised in central Kherson overnight, apparently by partisans, while photos posted to social media showed Ukrainian troops being greeted by residents of the Korabelnyi district of the city this morning. Various accounts suggest that the final Ukrainian push to retake the city was spearheaded by special forces troops.
By midday the Ukrainian Armed Forces were in control of most of the city, a member of the local regional council told Reuters. The main body of the Ukrainian troops had been advancing in three directions, liberating village after village as they headed toward Kherson city.
One of the first images purportedly showing members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in central Kherson, which has been geolocated to outside a pub in the west of the city:
Brig. Gen Patrick S. Ryder, the U.S. Department of Defense Press Secretary, provided the following statement on Kherson:
“We’ve seen the reports and continue to monitor. We’ll defer to Ukraine to provide updates on the movement and status of their forces, but Russia’s continuing withdrawal from the vicinity of Kherson City is a testament to the tenacity, courage, and initiative of Ukraine’s armed forces as they fight to defend their country and take back sovereign territory following Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion."
“As demonstrated by Friday’s security assistance announcement, we continue to work closely with our international allies and partners to provide Ukraine with the security assistance it needs to protect its citizens and to enable continued gains on the battlefield.”
As for the Russian side, the official line is that the withdrawal from Kherson was “complete” by 5:00 AM Moscow time, with forces and equipment moved to the eastern bank of the Dnipro (Dnieper) River. This is clearly highly questionable, with accounts of key bridges and crossings over the Dnipro having been targeted by artillery strikes, as Ukraine continues to apply pressure.
Previously, an estimated 20,000 Russian troops had been stationed on the west of the Dnipro and around Kherson city. According to Ukrainian accounts, around half of these soldiers had been evacuated across the river by Thursday evening. There were reports that some Russian soldiers had drowned in the process. The Kremlin, for its part, claims that none of its soldiers were killed in the evacuation and that it had lost no equipment. Eyewitness reports and imagery from the area would seem to suggest that this is highly improbable.
Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian Minister of Defense, told Reuters that the total number of Russian troops in the Kherson region was 40,000. He added that some of these were still in and around the city despite the Russian claims of full withdrawal. Meanwhile, residents of the city have been told to stay home while searches continue for Russian troops still in the city.
Reznikov added that he estimated it would take at least a week to withdraw all of these troops and suggested that Russia may redeploy some of them to the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region.
Among the crossings that have been damaged or destroyed is the vital Antonivskyi Bridge — the only nearby road crossing connecting the city with the Russian-controlled eastern bank — together with a pontoon bridge below it and an upriver railway span. It seems probable this particular damage was inflicted by Russian sappers, who blew up the bridge to prevent Ukrainian forces from being able to use it in the future to access the southern bank.
After months of HIMARS attacks, the Antonivskyi Bridge had already been made unusable, although Ukraine had only targeted one small segment so that it could be repaired and put back into use once recaptured. The damage now inflicted on it means that such a repair job is clearly out of the question.
Unconfirmed footage showing a blast on the railway span over the Dnipro has been attributed to Russian action, but this cannot be confirmed.
At the same time, there have been numerous reports of wounded Russian soldiers being taken prisoner or simply left behind by their retreating units.
Previously, at least, the pontoon bridge below the Antonivsky Bridge has been used by retreating Russian forces, with imagery showing columns of infantry moving across it. Large numbers of vehicles were also evacuated over the Dnipro during the night, according to eyewitnesses, but even the pontoon bridge appears to have been put out of action to halt the retreat of heavy equipment.
The degree of confusion that seemingly exists in the Russian ranks was reflected in the words of one soldier, who posted the following account to social media:
“Hey everyone, guys, I’m alive,” the soldier begins.
“What can I say? Everything I’ve been saying has happened. Those trying to find justification for this, comparing it with Borodino [a battle during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, in 1812] or anything else can, you can tell them to go fuck themselves. Those who think everything will be fine next, tell them to go fuck themselves.
“They are digging fortifications in Crimea and in one unit, which I won’t name, the last order was to change into civilian clothing and fuck off any way you want.”
The pro-Russian War Gonzo blog on Telegram provided the following observations: “Apparently we will leave the city, no matter how painful it is to write about it now. In simple terms, Kherson can’t be held with bare hands.”
“Yes, this is a black page in the history of the Russian Army. Of the Russian state. A tragic page.”
Other accounts from Russian troops also suggest that the withdrawal — which had been announced by Moscow only on Wednesday — was a panicked affair. This seems to have been fueled, in part, by concerns that units could still come under Ukrainian fire once on the eastern side of the Dnipro.
Despite this, Moscow has moved to downplay the importance of the loss of Kherson to its wider campaign. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow continued to consider the entire Kherson region as part of Russia. In September, the Kherson region was one of those that was annexed by Russia, to massive international condemnation, but that seems to have had little real influence on its fortunes since then. The withdrawal was justified by Kremlin officials in light of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, with further efforts to supply its forces and hold ground described as “futile.”
The Kremlin’s latest rhetoric notwithstanding, it’s hard to see the retreat as anything other than a major embarrassment for President Vladimir Putin and the country’s nearly nine-month-old so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. Kherson was, after all, the first major city to be captured by the Russians and was the only regional capital under their control.
Clearly, Ukraine sees the retaking of Kherson as a significant and symbolic victory. The Ukrainian Minister of Defense has also suggested this development will allow his forces to regroup for whatever offensive comes next.
“The winter will slow down every activity on the battlefield for all sides… It’s beneficial for all sides. You will have a rest,” Reznikov told Reuters. “We will use this time with a maximum result for our armed forces, for regrouping, for refreshing, and for rotation and we will prepare them well.”
Update, 10:00 AM PST: New satellite imagery has become available from Maxar Technologies providing a much better understanding of the extent of the damage inflicted on the road and rail bridges across the River Dnipro.
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