Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenksy made a surprise visit to Kherson Monday to offer support to residents of the newly recaptured city, where investigators have begun to uncover possible proof of wartime atrocities committed during the months-long occupation by Russian forces.
Zelensky said in his nightly address Sunday that officials had uncovered evidence of more than 400 war crimes. Russian forces, Zelensky alleged, left behind a trail of devastation and dead bodies in the wake of their hasty evacuation, similar to what Ukrainian officials found in April in Bucha, a Kyiv suburb, and Borodianka, a city east of the Ukrainian capital.
“The situation in the Kherson region is still very dangerous,” Zelensky said.
Just hours later, Zelensky was in the eponymous regional capital to speak with local officials. He told reporters that it was important to travel to Kherson, noting that Ukrainian servicemen and journalists on the ground were taking similar risks.
“I think it is necessary to be here and talk about Kherson residents, to support people. To make them feel that we are not only talking about it, but we are really returning, really raising our flag,” he said.
Russia’s military ordered its forces to evacuate from Kherson on Wednesday. On Friday, Moscow said it had withdrawn from the west bank of the strategically important Dnipro River, ceding large swathes of land that it had occupied since the early days of the war – effectively handing over Kherson city and its surrounding areas to the Ukrainians.
Ukrainian forces who entered the city on Saturday were greeted by jubilant residents cheering them and asking for autographs. A crowd of locals gathered in Kherson’s main square to sing the national anthem, while others shouted “Slava Ukrayini!” – glory to Ukraine, a patriotic greeting. Zelensky said about 70,000 to 80,000 people were still living in Kherson.
The retreat represents a major blow for Putin’s war effort in Ukraine. Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russian forces had captured since February’s invasion, though it was one of the few regions where residents dared to protest against the Kremlin.
The region of Kherson is also one of four Ukrainian territories that Russia attempted to annex in violation of international law. Fewer than fives weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed people living in these areas would be Russian citizens “forever.”
When asked about Zelensky’s visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “No comment. This is Russian territory.”
Though Russia has retreated from the city, Kherson is now a city on the front lines of the war.
Russian forces are now stationed just kilometers away, on the opposite bank of the Dnipro River. Ukraine’s military said Monday that Russian forces were conducting more aerial reconnaissance of Kherson, which could portend future airstrikes.
The most immediate issue, Ukrainian police said Saturday, was mines and explosives left behind by the Russian military.
Zelensky said Sunday that one sapper was killed and four others were injured in de-mining operations. A family of four – including an 11-year-old child – was also injured in a mine-related accident, a top Ukrainian official said Sunday.
Life inside the city remains difficult. Residents are without power and internet, and food and drinking water remain in short supply. The first aid convoys began to arrive in the city on Monday, a volunteer official said.
Critical infrastructure, including an important nearby dam, remain damaged and require repairs before coming back online.
Yaroslav Yanushevych, the head of the Kherson region military administration and Ukraine’s top official in the region, said all four power lines that supply electricity to the city had been destroyed.
“We are working on solving this problem day and night,” Yanushevych told reporters while appearing beside Zelensky on Monday. “The power will be restored in the near future.”
Kherson is one of many parts of Ukraine facing wartime power shortages. Since the end of summer, Russian forces have targeted energy infrastructure throughout Ukraine, crippling Kyiv’s ability to keep the lights and heat on as winter approaches. Zelensky said such attacks amount to “energy terrorism.”
“The coming months will be difficult. Putin’s aim is to leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter so we must stay the course,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Monday. “We should not make the mistake of underestimating Russia.”