Ukrainian soldiers were greeted with emotional hugs and flowers as they arrived in the heart of Kherson on Friday after Russian troops withdrew from the city.
Videos on social media appeared to show residents assembling in the streets of Kherson in southern Ukraine to cheer the arrival of Kyiv’s forces after a flag was raised over Kherson’s regional administration building. Ukrainian soldiers have been advancing on the city—the only regional capital seized by Russia since the start of the invasion in February—after Moscow ordered a withdrawal of its soldiers from Kherson and its surrounding areas earlier this week.
While Ukrainian and Western officials have cautioned that the retreat could be the prelude to a deadly Russian ambush, residents in and around the city appear to be savoring the moment after eight long months of occupation.
Jubilant crowds were filmed welcoming Ukrainian troops as liberators on Friday, with triumphant locals seen lifting soldiers into the air as onlookers wept tears of joy. Lawmaker Inna Sovsun shared a video purporting to show children handing flowers to troops as residents sang the national anthem while the Ukrainian flag was raised.
Soldiers also embraced and took photographs as the Ukrainian flag was raised outside the main police building in Kherson, according to local reports. Another moving clip shared online appears to show a Ukrainian girl playing the national anthem on a violin as friendly forces liberated her town in the Kherson region.
In a Facebook post Friday, Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency proclaimed Kherson back under Kyiv’s control and encouraged any Russian soldiers remaining in the area to give themselves up. “Your commanders urge you to dress in civilian clothes and try to escape from Kherson on your own. Obviously you can't do this,” the post read. “You have only one chance to avoid death—to surrender immediately.”
Earlier on Friday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hailed the Russian withdrawal by sharing a clip apparently showing residents outside the city tearing down a Russian propaganda billboard. “‘Russia is forever here,’ said a poster in Bilozerka near Kherson,” Kuleba captioned the clip. “Well, not really!” He added that “Ukraine is gaining another important victory right now and proves that whatever Russia says or does, Ukraine will win.”
In contrast with the locals’ adulation, the retreat could represent a major setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kherson is the capital of one of the four regions illegally annexed by Moscow at the end of September, with the province representing a central pillar of the Kremlin’s plans to build a land bridge to both Crimea—which was also illegally annexed by Russia in 2014—and the port city of Odesa.
The Kremlin on Friday said the withdrawal of troops did not change Kherson’s annexation into the Russian Federation. When asked if the retreat was humiliating for Putin, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “No.”
While Russia said it had withdrawn around 30,000 troops across the Dnipro River without any loss of personnel or equipment, Ukrainian authorities tell a different story. Serhiy Khlan, a member of Ukraine’s regional council for Kherson, claimed a large number of Russian soldiers drowned while trying to flee, Reuters reports.
Before the withdrawal of Moscow’s troops from Kherson was announced by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday, Kyiv and its allies had become concerned about a possible Kremlin plot to blow up the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant and flood the area. In his nightly broadcast on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that an attack on the plant would mean Moscow would be “declaring war on the entire world.”