KYIV and MOSCOW — Ukrainian soldiers began entering Kherson on Friday after a Russian retreat from the strategic city, in a significant win for Ukraine.
"Today is a historic day. We are taking back Kherson," the country's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address.
He said the military's special units were already in the city and more troops were on their way.
Videos shared on social media by Zelenskyy and other officials and citizens showed crowds in the street celebrating and chanting "ZSU! ZSU!" — the Ukrainian initials for the country's armed forces.
Ukraine's recapture of the key southern city marked a major setback for Russia, just six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally declared the broader Kherson region and three other territories were being incorporated into the Russian Federation.
Kherson city was the only regional capital seized by Russia since it launched its large-scale invasion in February.
Putin has remained silent since his defense chief announced the last Russian troops had pulled out of Kherson city early Friday morning.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that Russia still maintains a legal hold over the territory following the withdrawal. "Here there can be no changes," Peskov said Friday.
Ukrainians tear down Russian signs
Since early Friday morning, unconfirmed videos and photos have surfaced online of the Ukrainian flag being raised atop the Kherson city administration building and police headquarters, as well as jubilant locals in nearby villages celebrating liberation. Several videos appeared to show Ukrainians tearing down Russian billboards signs that read "Russia is Here Forever."
"Even when the city is not yet completely cleansed of the enemy's presence," Zelenskyy said in his address, "the people of Kherson themselves are already removing Russian symbols from the streets and buildings and any traces of the occupiers' stay in Kherson."
Ukraine's Defense Intelligence agency said it would guarantee the rights of any abandoned Russian soldiers who surrendered, under a program called "I Want to Live."
A bridge over Dnipro was damaged
The Russian withdrawal came amid reports of heavy damage to the Antonivsky Bridge — the area's only road crossing over the Dnipro. Satellite images released by Maxar Technologies appeared to show a section of the bridge was completely sheared off.
Russian and Ukrainian officials traded accusations over who was responsible for the damage.
Earlier this week, the commander of Russia's forces in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, proposed plans to withdraw from Kherson during a report to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on national television.
In what appeared to be carefully staged remarks, Surovikin called the decision to withdraw to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River "difficult," but one that would allow Russia to save the lives of military personnel and preserve Russia's combat capability.
Shoigu agreed and gave the order.
The initial announcement drew skepticism from Ukraine's government, which previously voiced concern that a troop withdrawal there could be a Kremlin ploy to lure Ukrainian forces into the city.
On Thursday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters he believed it would take "as a minimum, one week" for Russian forces to leave the city and that Moscow still had some 40,000 troops in the region.
But the Russians completed the withdrawal across the river from Kherson city less than 48 hours after announcing the move.
The Russian pullback is widely believed to be a blow to Putin's war effort in Ukraine — a view underscored by the Russian leader's continued silence on the pullback.
Charles Maynes reported from Moscow, Ashley Westerman from Kyiv.