KHERSON, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelenskyy triumphantly walked the streets of the newly liberated city of Kherson on Monday, hailing Russia’s withdrawal as the “beginning of the end of the war,” but also acknowledging the heavy price Ukrainian troops are paying in their grinding effort to push back the invaders.
The retaking of Kherson was one of Ukraine’s biggest successes in the nearly 9-month-old war, dealing another stinging blow to the Kremlin. It could serve as a springboard for more advances into occupied territory.
President Biden called it a “significant victory” for Ukraine.
“I can do nothing but applaud the courage, determination and capacity of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian military,” he said on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Indonesia. “They’ve really been amazing. … we’re going to continue to provide the capability for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves.”
Large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine are still under Russian control, and the city of Kherson itself remains within reach of Moscow’s shells and missiles. Heavy fighting continued elsewhere in Ukraine. Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported the town of Oleshky, in Russian-held territory across the Dnieper River from Kherson, came under heavy artillery fire.
Zelenskyy awarded medals to soldiers in Kherson and posed with them for selfies while striking a defiant note.
“This is the beginning of the end of the war,” he said. “We are step by step coming to all the temporarily occupied territories.”
But he also grimly noted the fighting “took the best heroes of our country.”
The end of Russia’s occupation of the city — the only provincial capital seized since the February invasion — has sparked days of celebration. But as winter approaches, its remaining 80,000 residents are without heat, water and electricity, and short on food and medicine. Zelenskyy says the city is laced with booby traps and mines. And Ukrainian authorities say there are signs of atrocities emerging, just as in other liberated areas.
Russian forces “destroyed everything in their path, wrecked the entire electricity network,” he said. Communications operators said cellphone service was being restored and the regional governor said a public wireless internet access point would begin working Tuesday.
The Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine has won “an important victory” in Kherson and other areas west of the Dnieper, but the Washington-based think tank noted that “it has by no means liberated the minimum territory essential to its future security and economic survival.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Moscow should not be underestimated.
“The Russian armed forces retain significant capability as well as a large number of troops, and Russia has demonstrated their willingness to bear significant losses,” he said in The Hague.
In Ankara, Turkey, CIA Director Bill Burns met with his Russian intelligence counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin, to underscore the consequences if Moscow were to deploy a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, according to a White House National Security Council official.
The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Burns and Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR spy agency, did not discuss settlement of the war. Their meeting was the highest-ranking face-to-face engagement between U.S. and Russian officials since before the invasion.
While U.S. officials have warned for months of the prospect that Russia could use weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine amid battlefield setbacks, Biden administration officials have repeatedly said nothing has changed in U.S. intelligence assessments to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin has imminent plans to deploy nuclear weapons.