KHERSON, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a triumphant visit to the newly liberated city of Kherson on Monday, hailing the Russian withdrawal as the “beginning of the end of the war” but also acknowledging the heavy price Ukrainian soldiers are paying in their grinding effort to push back the invading force.
The retaking of Kherson was one of Ukraine’s biggest successes in the nearly nine months since Moscow's invasion. It served another stinging blow to the Kremlin and could become a springboard for further advances into occupied territory.
But large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine are still under Russian control, and the city of Kherson itself remains within reach of Moscow's shells and missiles. Meanwhile, heavy fighting continued elsewhere in the country, with Ukraine reporting several civilian casualties.
Zelenskyy walked the streets of Kherson on Monday, awarding medals to soldiers and posing with them for selfies — and striking a defiant note.
“This is the beginning of the end of the war,” he said. “We are step by step coming to all the temporarily occupied territories.”
But he also grimly acknowledged that the fighting thus far “took the best heroes of our country.”
The end of Russia’s occupation of the city — the only provincial capital its forces have seized since the February invasion — has sparked days of celebration. But with winter approaching, residents are living without heat, water and electricity and are short of food and medicine. Zelenskyy himself noted that the city is laced with booby traps and mines. And Ukrainian authorities say evidence of atrocities are emerging as in areas they liberated earlier.
A Washington-based think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said that Ukraine has won “an important victory” in recapturing the city of Kherson and other areas west of the Dnieper River, but “it has by no means liberated the minimum territory essential to its future security and economic survival.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, during a visit to The Hague on Monday, warned that “we should not make the mistake of underestimating Russia.”
"The Russian armed forces retain significant capability as well as a large number of troops, and Russia has demonstrated their willingness to bear significant losses,” Stoltenberg said.
Zelenskyy has previously appeared unexpectedly in other front-line areas at crucial junctures of the war and his latest visit was both laden with symbolism and the common touch — clearly aimed at boosting the morale of both soldiers and civilians alike.
In video published by a presidential aide, a visibly moved Zelenskyy stood with his hand on his heart and sang the national anthem, as troops saluted and stood to attention and a soldier steadily hauled the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag up a flagpole.
People with flags draped around their shoulders cheered, cried and screamed out in gratitude as Zelenskyy walked by.
“It’s amazing. We’ve been waiting for him for nine months, thank you,” said one resident, Danila Yuhrenko.
Another resident, Serhii Yukhmchuk, 47, said he and his wife spent the occupation mostly at home to avoid interactions with the Russians. They and others in their community silently protested by refusing to use the ruble, Russia's currency, he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday refused to comment on Zelenskyy’s visit to Kherson, saying only that “you know that it is the territory of the Russian Federation.” Russia illegally annexed the Kherson region and three others earlier this year.
After the Russian retreat, Ukrainian authorities say they are finding evidence of torture and other atrocities.
In his nightly video address on Sunday, Zelenskyy said without giving details that “investigators have already documented more than 400 Russian war crimes, and the bodies of both civilians and military personnel have been found.”
“In the Kherson region, the Russian army left behind the same atrocities as in other regions of our country," he said. “We will find and bring to justice every murderer. Without a doubt.”
Residents said departing Russian troops plundered the city, carting away loot as they withdrew last week. They also wrecked key infrastructure before retreating across the wide Dnieper River to its east bank.
One Ukrainian official described the situation in Kherson as “a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Reconnecting the electricity supply is the priority, Kherson regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said.
The Russian pullout marked another triumphant milestone in Ukraine’s pushback against Moscow’s forces. In the past two months, Ukraine’s military claimed to have retaken dozens of towns and villages north of the city of Kherson.
But the grinding war continued with shelling, civilian casualties and each side reporting gains.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday that its forces had completely captured the village of Pavlivka in the eastern Donetsk region. Multiple Ukrainian officials have spoken of heavy battles raging in the area in recent weeks but did not confirm their loss of Pavlivka.
In Luhansk, another eastern region illegally annexed by Moscow, Kyiv’s forces have retaken 12 settlements, the Ukrainian governor of the region, Serhiy Haidai, said.