Images on Tuesday appeared to show Russian troops had quit a town in Ukraine across the Dnipro River from Kherson, the city they surrendered last week, suggesting one of the war’s biggest retreats may not have ended at the water’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 destabilisation,” 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 in video filmed in the town of Oleshky, across a collapsed bridge over the Dnipro from Kherson, 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enemy positions in Oleshky, but Ukrainian officials have not commented on images appearing to show Russian troops had withdrawn there.
“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.
Russia, for its part, has lately said it is focusing on eastern Ukraine, where it claimed to have captured Pavlivka, a frontline village in Donetsk region. Kyiv says Russia has endured huge losses in assaults in the east with few gains.
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 described a peace proposal under which Russia would withdraw all its forces from Ukraine, free all prisoners and reaffirm Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
He would indefinitely extend a programme to safeguard Ukrainian grain exports, and expand it to the port of Mykolaiv, beyond reach of Russian guns after the Kherson advance.
“Please choose your path for leadership – and together we will surely implement the peace formula,” he said.
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.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, heading Russia’s delegation in Putin’s absence, accused the West of trying to politicise a declaration from the summit by including language condemning Russia’s actions in a draft declaration.
Moscow says it is waging a “special military operation” in Ukraine to protect Russian-speakers. Ukraine and the West call it an unprovoked war of aggression.
Ukrainian officials said 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 carrying out atrocities in occupied areas.
In Mykolaiv, a city of around half a million under Russian bombardment throughout the war, there was rejoicing that the Kherson advance had pushed Moscow’s guns beyond range.
In a crater-scarred district, Pavel Salohub, 28, a history teacher and boxing coach, said he had not heard a single explosion in four days – the first respite since the invasion.
“Emotionally everyone is happier, you can feel it. It’s the first thing everyone talks about,” he said.