MOSCOW - The Kremlin on Monday insisted that Kherson was still part of Russia after Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky visited the southern city from which Moscow’s troops retreated last week.
“We leave this without comment,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of Mr Zelensky’s visit to Kherson.. But he added: “You know, this territory is part of the Russian Federation.”
Mr Zelenskiy visited the southern city of Kherson on Monday to celebrate its recapture from Russian forces with joyful residents and troops after months of Russian occupation.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive that forced Russian forces to retreat from Kherson last week was one of Ukraine’s biggest military successes since Russia invaded its neighbour in February.
“We are moving forward,” Mr Zelenskiy told reporters after arriving in Kherson on a sunny but cold day and addressing troops in front of the administration building in the main square. “We are ready for peace, peace for all our country.”
He thanked Nato and other allies for their support in the war against Russia and said the delivery of high mobility artillery rocket systems (Himars) from the United States had made a big difference to Ukraine’s war effort.
Parents with children, some pushing baby strollers, also gathered in the main square in front of the administration building that until recently was occupied by Russian forces.
Some people waved Ukrainian flags and others had the flag draped over their shoulders.
“I’m really happy, you can tell by the reaction of the people, their reaction is not staged,” said Mr Zelensky, who was flanked by heavily armed security guards. “The people were waiting for the Ukrainian army, for our soldiers, for all of us.”
He said it was important to visit Kherson to show support for residents who endured about eight months of Russian occupation and to demonstrate to them that “we are really returning, we really raise our flag”.
Asked where Ukrainian forces might advance next, he said: “Not Moscow...We’re not interested in the territories of another country.”
Minutes before he arrived, nearby shelling could be heard by people in the centre of Kherson. After Mr Zelenskiy finished speaking, several more blasts of artillery gunfire echoed over the city.
The president spent about 30 minutes in Kherson before leaving, witnesses said.
Ukrainian troops arrived in the centre of Kherson on Friday after Russia abandoned the only regional capital it had captured since Moscow launched its invasion.
Russia said it had withdrawn 30,000 troops from Kherson to the opposite side of the Dnipro River without losing a single soldier.
Ukrainians painted a picture of a chaotic retreat, with Russian troops ditching their uniforms, dropping weapons and drowning while trying to flee. Ukrainian forces have been combing the city to try to ensure it is safe.
The withdrawal marked the third major Russian retreat of the war and the first to involve yielding such a large occupied city in the face of a major Ukrainian counter-offensive that has retaken parts of the east and south.
Ukraine has said it is ready for peace talks but not with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It says the main condition for the resumption of negotiations with Russia would be the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. REUTERS, AFP