The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine rejoices as Russia retreats from key southern city of Kherson

People gathered in Kherson to celebrate the liberation of the city. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)
6 min

KYIV, Ukraine — Jubilant residents swarmed onto the streets of Kherson city on Friday to greet advancing Ukrainian forces with hugs, kisses and a sea of blue and yellow flags as Ukraine celebrated yet another major victory over the Russian army.

The first Ukrainian troops entered the city unopposed within hours of an announcement by Russia’s Ministry of Defense that its last forces had withdrawn and relocated to the east bank of the Dnieper River. The retreat was a new humiliation in Moscow’s failing attempt to conquer Ukraine, and a personal blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who only weeks ago had declared that Kherson would forever remain a part of Russia.

Now, Russia has been driven from western Ukraine entirely, leaving its forces battling to retain control of a shrinking patch of territory in the east against emboldened Ukrainian troops armed with increasingly sophisticated Western weapons.

President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed what he called “a historic day” in his nightly video address to the nation and paid tribute to the people of Kherson for enduring more than eight months of brutal occupation.

He promised more victories lay ahead, but also appeared to nod to the prospect that diplomacy could eventually play a role in Ukraine’s attempts to reclaim all occupied territory.

“Due to our strength on the battlefield and in diplomacy, we will restore the territorial integrity of our state,” he said.

It was unclear whether all Russian troops had left the west bank of the river, as Russia claimed. Zelensky said some Russians remained behind, perhaps because they had missed the final, chaotic retreat across the river on crude barges and makeshift pontoon bridges. Ukrainian forces began systematically targeting bridges with U.S.-supplied HIMARS in the summer, rendering Russia’s continued presence in the city untenable, and the river as the only way out.

Video posted on Nov. 11 showed extensive damage to the Antonovsky Bridge in Kherson, including collapsed sections. (Video: Telegram)

As a parting gesture, a Russian airstrike overnight destroyed what remained of the mile-long Antonovsky Bridge, the main route linking Kherson to the opposite bank of the river. The strike completely severed the vast concrete structure and left a gaping hole over the river, according to videos verified by The Washington Post.

Despite Ukrainian suspicions that the announced withdrawal was a ruse designed to lure its soldiers into a trap, there was no sign of any Russian attempt to sabotage the Ukrainian advance.

Zelensky appealed to any remaining Russians to hand themselves over to Ukrainian forces, assuring them that they would be treated in accordance with international law. “We’ll find you anyway. Don’t drag it out,” he said. “Voluntary Ukrainian captivity is the only option for all occupiers.”

The bulk of the Ukrainian force that has been slowly advancing toward the city since a counteroffensive launched in September has yet to arrive in the city, Ukrainian officials said. The soldiers are proceeding cautiously, methodically, hunting for possible holdouts and checking for mines laid by the departing Russians, the officials said.

But Kherson’s residents did not wait for the Ukrainian military to begin celebrating.

The first gestures were tentative — a Ukrainian flag appearing mysteriously on a plinth outside the government’s deserted administrative building; a handful of residents venturing into the empty square nearby to wave Ukrainian flags; a man climbing a ladder to tear strips off a billboard proclaiming “Russia is here forever.”

Then the first Ukrainian troops arrived — a few dozen special forces in a convoy of civilian vehicles — and people surged onto the streets, mobbing the vehicles and shouting, “Glory to Ukraine,” according to videos of the euphoric scenes verified by The Post. The partying continued late into the night, with Ukrainians dancing in the streets and singing patriotic songs. “Our glorious Ukraine shall — hey hey — cheer up and rejoice,” sang revelers around a bonfire in one part of town.

Video posted on Nov. 11 showed Ukrainians celebrating in central Kherson after Russian forces withdrew from the city. (Video:

Asked for comment in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kherson remained a part of Russia, despite the withdrawal. “Kherson region is a subject of the Russian Federation. The status is fixed,” he said, referring to Russia’s illegal annexation of Kherson in September.

Kherson was the only major city captured by Russia in the wake of its invasion in February and its loss represents the third major defeat inflicted by the Ukrainians, after the forced withdrawal of Russian troops from the Kyiv region in April and the rout of Russian troops from Kharkiv in September.

The Russian withdrawal from Kherson was a relatively orderly affair compared to those retreats. Repeated Ukrainian strikes on the two main bridges connecting Kherson to supply routes further east left Russia unable to maintain an adequate supply of troops and ammunition to its forces defending the city. Russian commanders appear to have reached a strategic decision that they would be better off retreating to the east bank of the river rather than risking another costly rout, according to Western officials.

Sergey Surovikin, Russia’s commanding general in Ukraine, justified the decision earlier this week to order the retreat as necessary to save the lives of the remaining troops. The withdrawal will free up Russian soldiers to focus on the eastern front lines that continue to be the focus of heavy fighting.

But it will also free up the Ukrainian troops who have been fighting for Kherson. With the winter approaching, the pace of the war is expected to slow, as mud and ice impede the advance of vehicles and inhibit the effectiveness of soldiers who will struggle to stay warm.

Ukraine’s Western allies are starting to suggest to Kyiv that they see the winter lull as an opportunity to at least broach the prospect of negotiations with Russia. But Ukrainian officials say they intend to remain on the offensive — to sustain the momentum they have gained in recent weeks and to convince their allies that they can win on the battlefield.

Ukraine is also bracing for retaliation by Russia. Recent Ukrainian successes have been countered by Russian missile strikes against cities far from the front lines, including a concerted effort to target Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Zelensky has accused Russia of seeking to “weaponize winter.”

In a missile strike Friday, some 60 miles west of Kherson, at least seven people were killed in the southern city of Mykolaiv in a direct hit on an apartment building. Resident Pavlo Rubailo said the strike may have been targeting a kindergarten nearby that has recently been used by the Ukrainian military.

“We were so happy about Kherson’s liberation,” he said. “We didn’t even think that Russia would keep shelling us.”

Francis reported from London. Samuel Oakford contributed to this report.