Images on Tuesday appeared to show Russian troops had quit a town in southern Ukraine on the far bank of the Dnipro River from Kherson, the city they surrendered last week, suggesting one of the biggest retreats of the war may not have ended at the river’s edge.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told world leaders there would be no let-up in Ukraine’s military campaign to drive Russian troops out of his country, following victory last week in the only regional capital Russia had captured since its invasion.
“We will not allow Russia to wait it out, build up its forces, and then start a new series of terror and global destabilization,” he said in an address by video link to a summit of the G20 big economies in Indonesia.
“I am convinced now is the time when the Russian destructive war must and can be stopped.”
Ukrainian forces mobbed by joyous residents swept into Kherson in recent days to claim the biggest prize of the war so far, a city that Russian President Vladimir Putin had proclaimed six weeks ago would be Russian forever.
Russia had said it was pulling its forces across the wide Dnipro River to more easily defended positions on the opposite bank. But images posted on the internet on Tuesday appeared to show the retreat may not have stopped at the river’s edge.
In video filmed in the town of Oleshky, on the opposite side of the Dnipro from Kherson across a collapsed bridge, there was no sign of any Russian presence.
A driver raced down the deserted main road for miles at high speed without encountering a single Russian checkpoint or flag. Several bunkers set up along the road appeared to have been abandoned. The location of the video was confirmed by Reuters based on visible landmarks.
Ukraine’s military said overnight that it had fired at enemy positions in Oleshky, but Ukrainian officials have not commented on images appearing to show Russian troops had withdrawn.
Moscow said last week it was pulling its troops across the Dnipro to better defend positions on the east bank in Kherson province, which controls access to Crimea, the strategic Black Sea peninsula Russia seized in 2014.
“Ukraine has the initiative and momentum and is dictating to the Russians where and when the next fight will be,” said Philip Ingram, a former senior British military intelligence officer.
On Monday, Zelenskiy visited Kherson to celebrate the victory there, shaking hands with soldiers and waving to civilians. He said Ukraine had already gathered evidence of at least 400 war crimes committed by Russian troops during their eight month occupation, including killings and abductions.
The war was a central focus of the G20 summit, at which Western leaders denounced Moscow. Russia is a member and Ukraine is not, but Russian President Vladimir Putin stayed home.
In his speech to the world leaders on the Indonesian island of Bali, Zelenskiy called for Russia to withdraw all its forces from Ukraine and reaffirm Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He also called for all Ukrainian prisoners to be released.
“Please choose your path for leadership – and together we will surely implement the peace formula,” he said.
Zelenskiy also welcomed comments from Chinese President Xi Jinping – who has refrained from criticising Russia publicly over the war but told U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday that nuclear weapons must not be used in Ukraine.
Putin has repeatedly said Russia could use nuclear weapons to defend its territorial integrity, interpreted in the West as an implicit threat over lands Moscow claims to have annexed.
“Everyone understands to whom these words are addressed,” Zelenskiy said in an address to Ukrainians, referring to Xi’s remarks.
The United States expects the G20 to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine and its impact on the global economy, a senior U.S. official said. Russia’s membership makes consensus on Ukraine unlikely, and the official declined to say what form the condemnation would take.
Speaking in Bali, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Putin’s government would hear the chorus of global opposition to its actions.
“Russia’s actions put all of us at risk,” he said.
Russia has said Putin was too busy to attend the summit.
Moscow says it is waging a “special military operation” in Ukraine to protect Russian-speakers. Ukraine and the West describe it as an unprovoked war of aggression.
Ukrainian officials say Kherson’s capture further undermines arguments that it should agree to cede land in any peace talks.
“Ukrainian servicemen accept no talks, no agreements or compromise decisions,” Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny wrote on Telegram late on Monday after a telephone conversation with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.
Olga Fedorova, an English teacher in Kherson, said that without electricity or internet, many residents were unaware of events until Ukrainian troops raised their flag in the main square on Nov. 11.
“We couldn’t believe, we still can’t believe that our Ukrainian army is here,” she said. “We have been waiting for them all this time, all this eight and a half months.”
Residents in and around Kherson interviewed by Reuters since Friday have described killings and abductions, including one account of a neighbour shot dead and three accounts of people carried off by troops in the village of Blahodatne.
It was not possible to verify the accounts independently.
Russia denies its troops deliberately attack civilians or have committed atrocities in Ukraine. Mass burial sites have been found in other parts previously occupied by Russian troops, including some with civilian bodies showing signs of torture.