MYKOLAIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Russian Defense Ministry said Friday that it finished pulling out its troops from the western bank of the Dnieper River in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, a retreat that marks another humiliating setback for Moscow in its war in Ukraine.
In a statement carried by Russia’s state news agencies, the ministry said the withdrawal was completed at 5 a.m. on Friday, and not a single unit of military equipment was left behind.
Areas the Russian military departed from included the city of Kherson, the only regional capital Moscow seized during its 8 1/2 month invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin remained defiant Friday, insisting the retreat in no way represented an embarrassment for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow continues to view the Kherson region as part of Russia.
He added that the Kremlin doesn’t regret holding festivities just over a month ago to celebrate the illegal annexation of Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions.
Shortly before the Russian announcement, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation in the Kherson region as “difficult.” It reported Russian shelling of some of the villages and towns Ukrainian forces reclaimed in recent weeks during their counteroffensive in the Kherson region.
Ukrainian officials were wary of the Russian pullback announced this week, fearing their soldiers could get drawn into an ambush in Kherson city, which had a prewar population of 280,000. Military analysts also had predicted it would take Russia’s military at least a week to complete the troop withdrawal.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Thursday that the retreating Russian troops laid mines throughout Kherson to turn it into a “city of death.” He also predicted they would shell the city after relocating across the Dnieper River.
The state of the key Antonivskiy Bridge that links the western and eastern banks of the Dnieper in the Kherson region remained unclear Friday, and could be key in determining whether the Russians have in fact all left Kherson city.
Russian media reports suggested the bridge was blown up following the Russian withdrawal; pro-Kremlin reporters posted footage of the bridge missing a large section. But Sergei Yeliseyev, a Russian-installed official in the Kherson region, told the Interfax news agency that “the Antonivskiy Bridge hasn’t been blown up, it’s in the same condition.”
Recapturing the city could provide Ukraine a launching pad for supplies and troops to try to win back other lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
From its forces new positions on the eastern bank, however, the Kremlin could try to escalate the war, which U.S. assessments showed may already have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
Leicester reported from Kyiv.