Zelenskyy calls Kherson liberation ‘beginning of the end of the war’


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy triumphantly walked the streets of the newly liberated city of Kherson on Monday, hailing Russia’s withdrawal as the “beginning of the end of the war,” but also acknowledging the heavy price Ukrainian troops are paying in their grinding effort to push back the invaders.

The liberation of Kherson was one of Ukraine’s biggest successes in the nearly nine-month war, dealing a stinging blow to the Kremlin. It could serve as a springboard for more advances into occupied territory.

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

“I can do nothing but applaud the courage, determination and capacity of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military,” he said on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia.

“I mean, they’ve really been amazing. And I think it’s hard to tell at this point exactly what it means. … But I’ve been very clear that we’re going to continue to provide the capability for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves.”

Don’t underestimate Russia, NATO chief warns

Large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine are still under Russian control, and the city of Kherson itself remains within reach of Moscow’s shells and missiles. Heavy fighting continued elsewhere in the country.

In Kherson, Zelenskyy awarded medals to soldiers and posed with them for selfies while striking a defiant tone.

“This is the beginning of the end of the war,” he said. “We are step by step coming to all the temporarily occupied territories.”

But he also grimly noted that the fighting “took the best heroes of our country.”

WATCH | Ukraine will extend fight against Russia this winter, says analyst: 

Ukraine will continue hard push against Russia through winter, says analyst

Ukrainian troops appear ready to extend the fight with Russia in the southern part of the country into winter after Ukraine’s triumphant liberation of Kherson, says retired U.S. general Philip Breedlove, a former NATO supreme allied commander of Europe.

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

“The Russian armed forces retain significant capability as well as a large number of troops, and Russia has demonstrated their willingness to bear significant losses,” he said.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Monday refused to comment on Zelenskyy’s visit to Kherson, saying only that “you know that it is the territory of the Russian Federation.”

Torture, war crimes documented, Ukrainians say

After the Russian retreat, Ukrainian authorities say they are finding evidence of torture and other atrocities.

In his nightly video address on Sunday, Zelenskyy said without details that “investigators have already documented more than 400 Russian war crimes, and the bodies of both civilians and military personnel 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 find and bring to justice every murderer. Without a doubt.”

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian soldiers take a selfie with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his visit to Kherson. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/The Associated Press)

The end of Russia’s eight-month occupation of Kherson city has sparked days of celebration, but also exposed a humanitarian emergency, with residents living without power and water and short of food and medicines. Russia still controls about 70 per cent of the wider Kherson region.

The Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine has won “an important victory” in recapturing the city and other areas west of the Dnipro River, but the Washington-based think tank noted that “it has by no means liberated the minimum territory essential to its future security and economic survival.”

Ukrainian police have called on residents to help identify people who collaborated with Russian forces.

Zelenskyy has previously appeared unexpectedly in other front-line zones at crucial junctures of the war, to support troops and congratulate them for battlefield exploits.

Video footage showed Zelenskyy waving to residents who waved at him from an apartment window and yelled “Glory to Ukraine!” The reply “Glory to the heroes!” came back from Zelenskyy’s group, made up of soldiers and others.

Ukrainian soldiers pull a car out of a crater on the road in the Kherson region on Sunday. The Ukrainian liberation of Kherson could serve as a springboard for more advances into occupied territory, but NATO has warned not to underestimate Russia’s capabilities. (AFP/Getty Images)

Infrastructure challenges

Zelenskyy urged people in the liberated zone to also be alert for booby traps, saying: “Please, do not forget that the situation in the Kherson region is still very dangerous. First of all, there are mines. Unfortunately, one of our sappers was killed, and four others were injured while clearing mines.”

And he promised that essential services would be restored.

“We are doing everything to restore normal technical capabilities for electricity and water supply as soon as possible,” he said. “We will bring back transport and post. Let’s bring back ambulance and normal medicine.”

Residents said departing Russian troops plundered the city, carting away loot as they withdrew last week. They also wrecked key infrastructure before retreating across the wide Dnipro River to its east bank.

One Ukrainian official described the situation in Kherson as “a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Reconnecting the electricity supply is the priority, with gas supplies already assured, Kherson regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said.

The arrival of winter is making the situation more difficult, with Stoltenberg saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin is aiming “to leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter.”

Biden said he expected things to slow down somewhat militarily “because of the winter months and the inability to move as easily around the country.”

The Russian pullout marked a triumphant milestone in Ukraine’s pushback against Moscow’s invasion almost nine months ago. In the past two months, Ukraine’s military claimed to have retaken dozens of towns and villages north of the city of Kherson.

Kherson residents react during Zelenskyy’s visit. The president awarded medals to soldiers, waved to residents and promised essential services would be restored. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

War continues as both sides report gains 

But the grinding war continued — with shelling, civilian casualties and each side reporting gains.

The Ukrainian army has now reclaimed three major areas of the country in its counteroffensives — the area north of Kyiv, the northeastern region of Kharkiv and now Kherson and many neighbouring settlements.

The liberation of Kherson came some six weeks after Putin annexed the Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine — in breach of international law — and declared them Russian territory.

The Russian Defence Ministry said its forces had completely captured the village of Pavlivka in the eastern Donetsk region. Multiple Ukrainian officials have reported heavy battles in the area in recent weeks but did not confirm the loss of Pavlivka.

In Luhansk, another eastern region illegally annexed by Moscow, Kyiv’s forces have retaken 12 settlements, said regional Gov. Serhiy Haidai.

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