KHERSON, Ukraine – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday said the country’s recapture of Kherson marked “the beginning of the end of the war” during a surprise visit to the newly liberated city.
But the city’s “critical infrastructure” was destroyed while under the control of Russian troops, he said, leaving the population with no electricity, communications or Internet.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg cautioned that Ukraine is facing difficult months ahead and said that Russia’s military capability should not be underestimated.
And United States President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping – a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – agreed in talks on Monday that nuclear weapons should never be used, including in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian presidency distributed images of Mr Zelensky singing the national anthem with his hand over his chest as the country’s blue-and-yellow flag was hoisted next to Kherson’s main administrative building.
“This is the beginning of the end of the war,” Mr Zelensky said. “It is a long way, a difficult way, because the war took the best heroes of our country. We are ready for peace.”
He added that “the price of this war is high”.
“People are injured. A large number are dead. There were fierce battles, and the result is – today we are in Kherson region.”
In his daily address issued on late Monday after his visit, he highlighted the hardships Kherson faces as winter approaches.
“There is no electricity, no communication, no Internet, no television... Before winter, the Russian occupiers destroyed absolutely all critical infrastructure,” Mr Zelensky said.
“This is what the Russian flag means – complete devastation,” he said, promising a return to normal life.
Moscow formally annexed Kherson last month. Mr Putin’s spokesman denied that the Ukrainian leader’s visit had any impact on its status.
‘Mistake’ to underestimate Russia
Mr Zelensky’s visit came just days after Ukrainian troops entered the city – the Kherson region’s administrative centre – after Russia pulled back its forces last Friday.
The takeover is the latest in a string of setbacks for the Kremlin, which invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 hoping for a lightning takeover that would topple the government in days.
Still, Mr Stoltenberg said, “the coming months will be difficult”.
“We should not make the mistake of underestimating Russia,” the Nato secretary-general told a press conference in The Hague.
“Putin’s aim is to leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter.”
Russia has repeatedly targeted Ukrainian infrastructure, and the country’s national energy company said Moscow’s forces destroyed a key energy facility before retreating from the western bank of the Dnipro river.
They also caused “significant damage to civilian infrastructure”, including “water and utility systems”, before their departure, a senior US military official told journalists.
The city of Kherson was the first major urban hub to fall to Russian forces and the only regional capital seized by Moscow’s troops.
Its recapture opens a gateway for Ukraine to the entire Kherson region, one of four that the Kremlin announced in September were annexed and part of Russia.
Mr Putin vowed to use all available means to defend them from Ukrainian forces, hinting at the use of nuclear weapons.
Mr Biden and Mr Xi agreed in talks at the G-20, however, that nuclear weapons should never be used, including in Ukraine, the White House said.
“President Biden and President Xi reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” it said in a statement.
US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, meanwhile, held talks with his Russian counterpart in Ankara to warn him about the consequences of using nuclear weapons.
And in New York, the United Nations General Assembly on Monday adopted a non-binding resolution calling for Russia to pay reparations for human and property destruction from its invasion of Ukraine.
The resolution – sponsored by Ukraine, Canada, the Netherlands and Guatemala – passed 94-14, with 63 countries abstaining. Countries opposing it included Russia, China, Cuba, Mali and Ethiopia.
A self-described partisan in Kherson told AFP after the Russian withdrawal that he and his friends had spent months walking the streets observing the Russians’ every move.
Ukraine’s forces could then use coordinates he provided to target strikes during a counteroffensive that has seen Russia cede roughly half the land it seized in the first weeks of the war.
“I was scared,” soft-spoken guitarist Volodymyr Timor said of the prospect of being caught and possibly killed.
Fuelling concerns that Moscow may have a lingering presence in Kherson, Ukrainian intelligence services said they had detained a Russian military serviceman dressed in civilian clothes.
It said his task was “to gather information, adjust fire on the Ukrainian armed forces and carry out sabotage”.
The senior US military official said it is possible Moscow still has a “small number” of troops on the western side of the Dnipro.
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s forces had retaken 12 towns and villages in the eastern region of Luhansk, the military and local officials said on Monday.
The eastern industrial region has been held by Russian-supported separatists since 2014 but Kyiv’s forces have slowly been clawing back territory.
But Russia’s military also said its forces were making gains in the neighbouring region of Donetsk, capturing the village of Pavlivka, where fighting had caused controversy in Russia. AFP