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MOSCOW and KYIV — Russia says it has completed the withdrawal of its forces from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, just days after Russia’s Defense Minister announced a troop pullback.
In a statement posted online, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that remaining troops have been transferred out of Kherson to the east bank of the Dnipro River early Friday with “not a single piece of military equipment or weapons” left on the other side.
Ukrainian officials have yet to confirm the withdrawal of Russian forces from the crucially strategic city is complete, nor the arrival of the Ukrainian military into Kherson city.
Still, many unconfirmed videos and photos have surfaced online of the Ukrainian flag being raised atop the Kherson city administration building and police headquarters, as well as jubilant locals in nearby villages celebrating liberation.
The announced Russian withdrawal came amid reports the Antonovka bridge — the lone road passage across the Dnipro — had been destroyed. Videos shared online appeared to show a large section of the bridge sheared off completely. Russian and Ukrainian officials traded accusations over who was responsible for the damage.
Earlier this week, the commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin proposed plans to withdraw from Kherson during a report to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on national television.
In what appeared to be carefully staged remarks, Surovikin called the decision to withdraw to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River “difficult” but one that would allow Russia to save the lives of military personnel and preserve Russia’s combat capability.
Shoigu agreed and gave the order.
The initial announcement drew skepticism from Ukraine’s government, which previously voiced concern that a withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson City was a Kremlin ploy to lure Ukrainian forces into the city.
Even as its forces appeared to meet little Russian resistance on the outskirts of Kherson city, which has been occupied since March, Ukrainian officials expressed skepticism over the speed of the Russian withdrawal.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters in an interview on Thursday that it will take at “as a minimum, one week” for Russian forces to leave the city and that Moscow still has some 40,000 troops in the region.
The Russian withdrawal is widely believed to be a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war effort in Ukraine — a view underscored by Putin’s continued silence on the pullback.
The city was the first – and only – major city seized by Russian forces since the start of the conflict in Ukraine.
In September, Putin presided over a lavish Kremlin ceremony in which he illegally annexed Kherson and 3 other Ukrainian territories into the Russian Federation – claiming the lands were now Russia’s “forever.”
Despite abandoning Kherson to Ukrainian forces, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted Russa’s still maintained a legal hold over the territory.
“Here there can be no changes,” said Peskov.
The claims of a completed withdrawal came amid reports the lone bridge on the Dnipro had been destroyed.
It also follows an order by Russia’s commander in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, to establish a new Russian line of defense on the river’s east bank.
While President Vladimir Putin has not commented directly on the withdrawal from territory he illegally annexed as recently as September, his spokesman told reporters the Kremlin still viewed Kherson as part of the Russian Federation.
Charles Maynes reported from Moscow, Ashley Westerman from Kyiv.
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