Ukrainian forces swept into the key southern city of Kherson on Friday as Russian troops retreated to the east, marking one of the biggest military setbacks for President Vladimir Putin since he launched his invasion more than eight months ago.
Images on social media, geolocated by CNN, show Ukrainian forces surrounded by residents in the city’s Shumenskyi district following Russia’s withdrawal from the Kherson region west of the Dnipro River.
Citizens have also flooded the city’s central square, waving and raising Ukrainian flags, in other images geolocated by CNN.
Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russian forces had captured since they invaded in February.
This week’s retreat across the Dnipro cedes large swathes of land that Russia had occupied since the early days of the war, and that Putin had formally declared as Russian territory just five weeks ago.
Ukrainian troops have pushed forward in their wake, amid warnings from Kyiv that fleeing Russian forces may have left behind a trail of mines and devastation.
Russia’s Defense Ministry announced earlier on Friday that its forces have completed their partial withdrawal from the Kherson region, after Moscow ordered the retreat Wednesday,
“In the Kherson direction, the move of Russian military units to the left bank of the Dnieper River was completed at 0500 [Moscow time] this morning,” the ministry said on its official Telegram channel, using the Russian spelling for the river.
“Not a single piece of military equipment or weaponry was left behind on the right bank,” the statement said, referring to the western side of the river. “All Russian servicemen have moved to the left bank of the Dnieper.”
A local Ukrainian official in the region told CNN Friday that he could “neither confirm nor deny” whether Russian forces have withdrawn from Kherson city.
“We’re keeping the ‘information silence’ mode,” said Yuriy Sobolevskyi, first deputy head of Ukraine’s Kherson regional council.
“We do not comment on Ukrainian military movement or the enemy military movement.”
Images and video on social media Friday also showed that the Antonivskyi Bridge, the main conduit over the Dnipro in the Kherson region, had been destroyed.
Alexander Kots, a reporter for the Russian pro-government tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda embedded with Russian forces, posted a video on his Telegram channel standing on the crossing, showing the entire center section of the bridge destroyed.
“Behind me are the two collapsed spans of (the) bridge,” Kots said. “They were likely blown up during the withdrawal of the Russian group of forces from the right bank to the left,” or western bank to eastern bank.
An image circulating on social media Friday showed a Ukrainian flag in the center of Kherson, though there is no suggestion that the Ukrainian military is yet in that city.
Sobolevskyi, the Ukrainian official, also declined to confirm the veracity of the social media images of the Ukrainian flag in Kherson city center.
“I cannot confirm that is a real photo,” he said. “But I can say that it is the Svobody square (freedom square), where all the rallies against occupation took place. The Resistance movement was there in Kherson all the time, since occupation began. People have shown their patriotic attitude with patriotic graffiti, ribbons, flags etc.”
Ukrainian residents of a town on the western outskirts of Kherson city have raised a Ukrainian flag and ripped down Russian propaganda billboards, according to videos on social media geolocated by CNN.
The videos are from the town of Bilozerka, around 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of Kherson city.
One video shows a Ukrainian flag flying over a World War II memorial. Another shows residents tearing down a propaganda billboards with a young girl holding a Russian flag, which read: “Russia is here forever.”
Kyiv officials have warned that retreating Russian troops could turn the regional capital of Kherson into a “city of death” on the way out.
An official in southern Ukraine warned residents Friday to be wary of quickly returning to recently liberated territory due to the threat of mines.
“There are a lot of mines in the liberated territories and settlements,” Vitaliy Kim, head of Mykolaiv region military administration, said on Telegram. “Don’t go there for no reason. There are casualties.”
Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed by Russia in September.
The top Kremlin spokesperson on Friday insisted that the region remains part of Russia, despite the stated intention to partially withdraw.
“This is a subject of the Russian Federation,” Dmitry Peskov said during a regular briefing with journalists. “It has been legally fixed and defined. There can be no changes here.”
Russia still controls a large portion of the Kherson region – the area east of the Dnipro River.
When asked directly whether Russia’s retreat was “humiliating” for President Vladimir Putin, Peskov replied: “No.”