President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has hailed Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson during a surprise visit to the strategic southern city as the possible “beginning of the end of the war,” but warned that such victories came at a high price.
The liberation of Kherson over the last few days was one of Ukraine’s biggest successes in nearly nine months since the start of the Russian invasion and sparked days of celebration but also exposed a humanitarian emergency for the residents of the city.
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“This is the beginning of the end of the war,” Zelenskiy said in an address to the Ukrainian troops in the city. “We are step-by-step coming to all the temporarily occupied territories.”
But he also reminded Ukrainians that the success came at a high human cost.
“The price of this war is high. People are injured. A large number of dead. (Russian forces) have left or escaped — we believe that they have escaped because our army has surrounded the enemy and they were in danger,” Zelensky said.
“There were fierce battles, and the result is — today we are in Kherson region.”
“We are moving forward,” Zelenskiy told Ukrainian soldiers in the city, thanking NATO and other allies for their continued support in the war against Russia.
“We are ready for peace, peace for all our country,” he said.
As fierce fighting continues in eastern and southern Ukraine, the Kremlin refused to comment on Zelenskiy’s visit to the city, but spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “You know that it is the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Russia, which still controls about 70 percent of the wider Kherson region, illegally annexed it and three other Ukrainian regions in September following referendums that Kyiv and the West have labeled as a sham.
In Kherson, wary Ukrainian officials maintained a curfew in the liberated region amid fears that mines and booby traps could still target and kill civilians.
The governor of Kherson region, Yaroslav Yanushevych, said the authorities had decided to maintain a curfew from 5 pm to 8 am and ban people from leaving or entering the city as a security measure.
“The enemy mined all critical infrastructure,” Yanushevych told Ukrainian TV. “We are trying to meet within a few days and (then) open the city,” he said.
Zelenskiy’s visit to the region came a day after fresh evidence of war crimes was being uncovered in Kherson following the departure of Russian troops.
Zelenskiy earlier said Ukrainian investigators had uncovered hundreds of war crimes in areas freed from Russian occupation.
“Investigators have already documented more than 400 Russian war crimes,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on November 13. “The bodies of dead civilians and servicemen have been found.”
“The Russian Army left behind the same savagery it did in other regions of the country it entered,” he said.
The allegations could not be independently verified. Russia denies its troops intentionally target civilians.
Zelenskiy said “stabilization and the restoration of law” has been established in 226 settlements in the region, while the Defense Ministry said it had recaptured 179 settlements and 4,500 square kilometers along the Dnieper River over the past week.
The Ukrainian military’s General Staff reported continued fierce fighting along the eastern front in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Ukrainian armed forces’ southern command said on November 14 that Russian forces continued to “inflict fire damage on our troops and de-occupied settlements along the right bank of the Dnieper” even after the liberation of Kherson city, which Zelenskiy described as “a historic day.”
The Ukrainian General Staff’s report on November 14 said that in the Luhansk region in southeastern Ukraine, occupying Russian forces plan to carry out a complete evacuation of the civilian population from three settlements.
The Russian Army is also trying to hold captured territories and continues to equip defensive lines on the left bank of the Dnieper River in the Kherson region. It said five settlements in the Kherson direction had been struck by artillery fire.
The evening message also reported on the destruction of a command post of one of the Russian units in Horlivka in the Donetsk region and on 17 strikes on Russian military facilities.
It was not possible to verify the information.
Yanushevych warned people in an online message about reports of humanitarian aid arriving in downtown Kherson’s Liberty Square and urged people to steer clear of the city center as demining operations were due to proceed there.
Zelenskiy also warned Kherson residents about the presence of Russian mines. “I am asking you please not to forget that the situation in the Kherson region remains very dangerous,” he said.
Russian officials’ announcement that their forces were withdrawing across the Dnieper, which bisects the Kherson region and Ukraine, followed a seemingly hugely successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the country’s south in recent months.
US President Joe Biden hailed the retaking of Kherson as a “significant victory,” raising confidence that Moscow will not occupy its neighbor as intended when it invaded in late February.
“I can do nothing but applaud the courage, determination, and capacity of the Ukrainian people,” Biden told a press conference after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 14.
“I think you are going to see things slow down a bit because of the winter months…I think it remains to be seen exactly what the outcome will be.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned on November 14 that Ukraine should brace for a difficult winter.
“The coming months will be difficult. Putin’s aim is to leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter,” he told a press conference in The Hague after meeting the Dutch foreign and defense ministers.
Stoltenberg urged continued international support for Kyiv and said Russia’s military capability should not be taken lightly.
“We should not make the mistake of underestimating Russia. They still control large parts of Ukraine. What we should do is strengthen Ukraine’s hand.”
With reporting by Reuters and AP