Amid Joy in Kherson, a Humanitarian Disaster Looms
KHERSON, Ukraine — Ukrainian soldiers worked to secure the city of Kherson on Saturday and battled Russian forces on its outskirts, the military said, one day after Ukraine’s special forces entered the southern port city to rapturous cheers from residents who had endured months of Russian occupation.
Despite the Russian withdrawal, the Ukrainian military’s intelligence agency said on Saturday that there remained Russian soldiers in fixed defensive positions, and that it was unclear whether they would fight, flee or surrender.
As Ukrainian forces entered the city, the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, including a lack of water and electricity, became apparent. Nevertheless, for a second day, residents poured into the streets to celebrate.
The jubilant sounds of cheering and car horns mingled with occasional explosions from incoming artillery on the city’s outskirts. The military also said that Ukrainian forces were clearing mines and explosives left behind by the departing Russian forces, and searching for any Russian soldiers who might be hiding in abandoned homes.
As night fell and the city went dark, blacked out by electrical cables blown up during the fighting, a party that had begun on Friday in the city’s central square went on.
Ukrainian songs banned under the occupation blared from a speaker. People cheered and sang along, dancing to the light of car headlights and flashlights. Couples embraced and swayed to a slow song by the Ukrainian band Oceans of Elza, marking a little pocket of hope in a war that is not over.
Kherson, an urban hub with a prewar population in the hundreds of thousands, is mostly without heat, water, electricity, medicines or cellphone service. One Ukrainian official called it “a humanitarian catastrophe.” And on Saturday, reports of explosions at a critical dam roughly 40 miles to the northeast cast a growing shadow over the celebration.
Looming to the east are formations of Russian forces and their artillery, mostly still intact following their very publicized recent retreat. Kremlin-installed officials who had been occupying Kherson announced on Saturday that they had set up a new administrative capital in a seaside resort town, Henichesk, about 110 miles deep behind Russian lines.
The sudden change, prompted by Russia’s searing loss on the battlefield, comes less than a month and a half after Moscow moved to annex the region, with its capital in Kherson city.
The city’s residents were still processing the fast-moving events on Saturday. Only a day before, they had been hiding their Ukrainian flags from Russian soldiers. Now they wrapped themselves in their flag’s blue and gold and hugged Ukrainian soldiers in the streets.
“People walk on the streets and congratulate each other,” said Serhiy, a retiree who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. “It’s just a holiday!”
One Ukrainian special forces soldier, speaking on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, described the moment as a burst of emotions. He said he was thinking of how much work had been done in the past eight months to make the events of the past two days happen, and how many soldiers had died in the process.
Another Ukrainian army soldier, a foreign volunteer, said their arrival to the city was like “Paris, 1944.”
Amid the celebrating, however, the daunting scale of the humanitarian crisis in the area was coming into focus on Saturday. Many people in Kherson have no heat, power or running water. Food and medicine are in short supply. Ukrainian military officials said the city was not yet safe for a large-scale humanitarian relief effort.
Further adding to the growing list of humanitarian concerns, Kremlin-aligned Russian news outlets published a video on Saturday purporting to show a large explosion in the area of the Kakhivska hydroelectric power plant, which is a part of the Kakhova dam complex roughly 40 miles northeast of Kherson.
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It was unclear when the blast took place, but local residents said they had heard a large explosion on Friday afternoon.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, expressed cautious optimism on Saturday over Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson, calling it a “big moment” for the Ukrainian forces. He also reiterated that the Biden administration would not push for a diplomatic end to the war.
A rift in the U.S. government spilled into public view this week as Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began pressing for Ukrainian forces to consider capitalizing on their momentum by negotiating an end to the fighting before winter sets in. Mr. Biden’s advisers, including Mr. Sullivan, have publicly pushed back on any suggestion that they should pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to cede territory to Russian invaders.
“Ukraine is the party of peace in this conflict, and Russia is the party of war,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Russia invaded Ukraine. If Russia chose to stop fighting in Ukraine and left, it would be the end of the war. If Ukraine chose to stop fighting and give up, it would be the end of Ukraine.”
He said that what happened in Kherson had not changed the administration’s position, partly because Moscow has continued to make claims about annexing territory.
Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said some Russian soldiers in and around Kherson city were still actively engaged with Ukrainian forces. There were also reports, she said, of Russian soldiers surrendering to the Ukrainians or changing into civilian clothes and hiding in apartments.
“How many forgotten soldiers remain, it is very difficult to say at this point,” she said in an interview with Freedom TV, a Russian-language channel in Ukraine that focuses on broadcasting abroad.
She added that Ukrainian forces were “a stone’s throw away” from Russian forces that were fortifying positions on the other side of the Dnipro, making them vulnerable to artillery fire. Ukraine’s military also reported fighting in towns and villages outside Kherson city, including around the endangered dam in the city of Nova Kakhovka.
As the winter months fast approach, military analysts are divided over the fate of the war and whether Ukrainian forces can continue to retake territory despite the logistical difficulties that come with bitingly cold weather.
The Russians continue to carry out a well-orchestrated air campaign against Ukraine’s energy grid, crippling critical services across the country. In the mineral-rich Donbas region, Russian forces have retrenched, building concerted rings of earthworks following their defeat in the northeast in September, though in some areas they are still on the offensive.
Still, the jubilation was mixed with worry about the Russian military, which pulled back but remained within artillery range.
Col. Roman Kostenko, a member of Parliament serving in the Ukrainian military, said the risk of a retaliatory bombardment of Kherson was high. “They will shell the city,” he said.
Rybar, an influential pro-war Russian military blog, posted a video that had been published by the Russian outlet iz.ru and claimed that Russian forces had on Friday attacked the Kakhova dam complex. Other Russian news outlets blamed the Ukrainians.
The road over the dam, in the town of Nova Kakhovka, was the last major crossing left to Russian forces in the area. It is also a vital piece of infrastructure that holds back a body of water the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
For weeks, the Ukrainians and the Russians have both warned that the other side would try to damage the dam. Military analysts have said that it would not be in either side’s interest to destroy it, though, since doing so would have an impact on both armies, which are now on opposite banks of the Dnipro River.
Satellite images showed that the area around the dam had suffered damage from Thursday into Friday, when Russian forces retreated.
As Russian positions grew more precarious recently, Moscow accused Ukraine of planning to destroy the dam — a claim that Ukraine and its Western allies dismissed as absurd.
Kyiv has said that it had no incentive to flood its own land and that the Russian accusations, made without evidence, were a sign that Moscow was preparing a “false flag” operation to blow up the dam itself, potentially flooding 80 towns, villages and cities, including Kherson.
“Russia is consciously laying the groundwork for a large-scale disaster in Ukraine’s south,” Mr. Zelensky said during an address to the European Council last month.
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kherson, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Katie Rogers from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Wakefield, Rhode Island, Maria Varenikova and Anna Lukinova in Kyiv and Christiaan Triebert in New York.