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Visiting liberated Kherson, Zelensky sees ‘beginning of the end of the war’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Kherson on Nov. 14 and vowed to press on recapturing all occupied lands from Russia. (Video: Reuters)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a triumphant visit to Kherson on Monday morning, saying that the city’s liberation marked “the beginning of the end of the war” and pledging to drive Russia entirely out of his country.

Standing in the central square of Kherson in front of a raucous crowd of several hundred people, Zelensky said Western-supplied weapons played a crucial role in recent battlefield victories but that the victories were paid for in Ukrainian blood.

“Nobody just gave us anything,” he said when a journalist suggested that Russian troops had fled the city. “The price of this victory is considered very high,” the president said, adding that the cost was “a lot of people wounded and a very high number of dead.”

“I think they ran because our army threatened the enemy and they were in grave danger,” Zelensky said of the Russians. “There were intense fights. And here is the result: We are here today in Kherson.”

Kherson, an important port city located where the Dnieper River meets the Black Sea, was the sole regional capital that Russian forces had managed to capture since the start of their invasion on Feb. 24.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared Kherson city, along with the broader Kherson region and three other Ukrainian provinces, to be annexed and part of Russia — in violation of international law.

Ukrainian-reclaimed territory through counteroffensives

Russian-held areas

Voronezh

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Four illegally

annexed

regions where

Putin declared

martial law

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Valuyki

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Svatove

LUHANSK

Cherkasy

Slovyansk

Luhansk

Dnipro

Donetsk

Area from which

Russian troops

have withdrawn

DONETSK

Zaporizhzhia

Area held

by Russian-

backed

separatists

since 2014

Kherson

ZAPORIZHZHIA

Mariupol

Melitopol

Mykolaiv

MOL.

KHERSON

Odessa

RUSSIA

Kerch

CRIMEA

Krasnodar

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

ROM.

Novorossiysk

Sevastopol

Black Sea

Control areas as of Nov. 8

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukrainian-reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Russian-held

areas

BELARUS

Voronezh

Four illegally

annexed

regions where

Putin declared

martial law

RUSSIA

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Poltava

Cherkasy

LUHANSK

Kramatorsk

Dnipro

Area from which

Russian troops

have withdrawn

DONETSK

Zaporizhzhia

ZAPORIZ.

Mykolaiv

Melitopol

KHERSON

Area held by

Russian-backed

separatists

since 2014

Kherson

Crimea

Odessa

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

Sevastopol

100 MILES

Control areas as of Nov. 9

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI’s Critical Threats Project

Ukraine-reclaimed territory

through counteroffensives

Russian-held

areas

Four illegally

annexed

regions where

Putin declared

martial law

BEL.

Chernihiv

Belgorod

Sumy

Kyiv

Kharkiv

LUHANSK

UKRAINE

Dnipro

Area from which

Russian troops

have withdrawn

DONETSK

Zaporizhzhia

ZAPORIZ.

Area held by

Russian-backed

separatists

since 2014

Mykolaiv

KHERSON

Kherson

Crimea

Odessa

Annexed by Russia

in 2014

100 MILES

Sevastopol

Black Sea

Control areas as of Nov. 9

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

Moscow’s surrender of the city last week exposed Putin’s annexation proclamation as a fantasy, divorced from reality on the ground, and the jubilation of residents upon the arrival of Ukrainian troops suggested that Russia did not enjoy as much local support it tried to claim from staged referendums in September.

Asked about Zelensky’s visit to the city, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Monday reiterated Russia’s bogus claim to Ukraine’s sovereign land. “We leave this without comment, ” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. “You know that this is the territory of the Russian Federation.”

Fighting-age men in Russia are still hiding in fear of being sent to war

Zelensky’s visit Monday came as Ukrainian authorities began documenting evidence of atrocities carried out during the more than eight months of Russian occupation of Kherson, including allegations of torture. Some residents said they did not know the locations of loved ones arrested by the Russians.

Standing barely a mile from the Dnieper River marking the edge of Russian-controlled territory, Zelensky appeared relaxed, and the president, a former comedic actor, even cracked jokes.

When asked why it was so important to be in Kherson today, he at first quipped it was because of the region’s famously delicious watermelons.

Russian zookeeper kidnaps animals from Kherson, Ukraine says

“Honestly, important to be here,” he added. “I think I have to speak here and support the people of Kherson, support them so that they would feel we don’t just talk about this, promise things, but we come back and raise our flag. And honestly, I also want to feel this emotion, this energy of the people. It motivates me.”

Zelensky said he was ready for peace, but not if that meant handing over Ukrainian territory. U.S. officials, in particular, have pressed him in recent days to voice a greater openness to negotiations to end the war.

“We are ready for peace, but our peace for our country,” Zelensky said. “It’s all our country, all of our territory. We respect the law and respect sovereignty of all countries, but now we’re talking about our country and fighting against Russian aggression.”

In a phone call Monday, Ukraine’s commander in chief, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, similarly told Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Ukraine would not cede any territory to Russia. Milley had caused some unease in Kyiv with public comments last week suggesting that winter might be time for Ukraine and Russia to begin negotiations because the war likely could not be won militarily by either side.

“I have assured that we will fight until we have no strength,” Zaluzhny told Milley, according to a Ukrainian readout of the call. “Our objective is to liberate the whole of Ukrainian land from the Russian occupation. We will not stop on this way under any circumstances. Ukrainian soldiers will accept no negotiations, agreements or compromise solutions. The only term for negotiation: Russia must leave all the captured territories.”

The Biden administration had been pressing Zelensky to show public openness to talks, as a way of shoring up support for Ukraine among Western allies who may be growing exhausted by the war. Biden has said repeatedly that it is up to Ukraine to decide if it is open to negotiations and on what terms.

Asked in Kherson about potential war crimes in the recently liberated city, Zelensky said he could not say for certain how many crimes Russian forces had committed, but he estimated it was in the “hundreds.”

Days after Russian forces withdrew from the Kherson region, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Nov. 13 that the city is still “very dangerous.” (Video: Reuters)

Zelensky said officials were working on restoring electricity to the city, where he estimated that about 70,000 to 80,000 residents remain from a population of 300,000 before the invasion.

Zelensky opened his news conference by welcoming journalists and then warning them to be careful, as much of the city remained at risk of Russian mines.

Kherson residents celebrate liberation and describe trauma of occupation

That included the regional administration building behind him, which remained closed as demining units swept it.

“Be careful please, now, I ask you,” Zelensky said as a crowd on the other side of the square chanted “Z-S-U!” the acronym for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

“We already have some victims of mines,” the president said.

After Zelensky finished speaking, the governor of the Kherson region, Yaroslav Yanushevych, told reporters that restoring electricity to the city was a priority, but the work could only begin once the mine-clearing operation was completed.

Yanushevych said that all four electrical lines to the city had been destroyed but that officials were working “day and night” to restore power after being without electricity for more than a week.

As officials tried to reconnect the city to the power grid, a few private businesses were able to fire up their generators Monday.

In one of the many small glimpses of normality beginning to return to Kherson, one cafe appeared to be serving espresso.

Along the river — for months, the front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces — locals gathered leisurely on Monday.

Some filled buckets of water since their taps were not yet back in service. But others acted as if it were any crisp autumn afternoon before the war.

Two men sat in a boat on the river, one bravely wearing bright orange. Lesya Lilik, 33, was calm as she rocked her almost 1-year-old boy in a stroller while her older son, Serhiy, eagerly cast his fishing line into the dark water.

“I’m not that worried anymore,” Lilik said, even though her location was still within range of some Russian weaponry.

Not far from where Lilik was standing, a 180-foot-tall Ukrainian flag had been hoisted the night before. When she first saw it Monday morning, Lilik called her son to their balcony to see it.

“Before, we didn’t know if there was going to be a future,” she said. “Now I think everything will be all right.”

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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