MYKOLAIV, Ukraine - Russia relinquished its final foothold in a major city in southern Ukraine on Friday, allowing Ukrainian forces to move cautiously toward reclaiming the country’s only Russian-occupied provincial capital in what would be a major morale-boosting victory.
In a statement carried by Russian state news agencies, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its troops finished withdrawing from the western bank of the river that divides Ukraine's southern Kherson region at 5 a.m. The area they left included the city of Kherson, the only provincial capital Russia had captured during its nearly 9-month invasion of Ukraine.
Videos and photos circulating on social media on Friday showed a Ukrainian flag flying over a monument in on a central square of Kherson and local residents cheerfully taking to the streets with Ukrainian flags as well. Some footage showed crowds cheering on men in military uniform.
A Ukrainian regional official, Serhii Khlan, disputed the Russian Defense Ministry's claim that the retreating forces took all their equipment with them, saying he was told "a lot" of hardware got left behind.
Khlan, who spoke to journalists from outside the city, said he heard that some Russian troops also were left behind and had dressed in civilian clothes, possibly with plans to engage in acts of sabotage." He said their exact number was unclear.
Ukrainian intelligence posted a Russian-language statement on social media, urging Russian troops, if any were left in Kherson, to surrender, because Ukrainian forces "are entering the city."
The retreat came six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed the Kherson region and three other Ukrainian provinces, vowing they would remain Russian forever. Moscow’s forces still control about 70% of the Kherson region following the pullback ordered amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The Kremlin remained defiant Friday, insisting the withdrawal in no way represented an embarrassment for Putin. Moscow continues to view the entire Kherson region as part of Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
He added that the Kremlin doesn’t regret holding festivities just over a month ago to celebrate the annexation of occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine.
Shortly before the Russian announcement, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation in the province 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.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s army said the Russian forces also left looted homes, damaged power lines and mined roads in their wake. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak predicted Thursday the departing Russians would seek to turn Kherson into a "city of death" and would continue to shell it after relocating across the Dnieper River.
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.
Without referencing events unfolding in Kherson, Zelenskyy said in a video message thanking U.S. military personnel on Veterans Day that that "victory will be ours."
"Your example inspires Ukrainians today to fight back against Russian tyranny," he said. "Special thanks to the many American veterans who have volunteered to fight in Ukraine and to the American people for the amazing support you have given Ukraine. With your help, we have stunned the world and are pushing Russian forces back."
However, some quarters of the Ukrainian government barely disguised their glee at the pace of the Russian withdrawal.
"The Russian army leaves the battlefields in a triathlon mode: steeplechase, broad jumping, swimming," Andriy Yermak, a senior presidential adviser, tweeted. Social media videos apparently filmed by soldiers on routes toward Kherson showed villagers hugging the Ukrainian troops.
Recapturing the city could provide Ukraine a strong position from which to expand its southern counteroffensive to other Russian-occupied areas, potentially 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.
A Russian S-300 missile strike overnight killed seven people in Mykolaiv, a city about 68 kilometers (42 miles) from Kherson's regional capital, Zelenskyy's office said Friday morning. Rescue crews sifted through the rubble of a five-story residential building in search of survivors.
Standing in front of what used to be his family’s apartment, Roman Mamontov, 16, awaited news about his missing mother.
Mamontov said he found "nothing there" when he opened an apartment door to look for his mother after the missile struck. Friday was her 34th birthday, the teenager said.
"My mind was blank at that moment. I thought it could not be true," he said. "The cake she prepared for the celebration is still there."
Zelenskyy called the missile strike "the terrorist state’s cynical response to our successes at the front."
"Russia does not give up its despicable tactics. And we will not give up our struggle. The occupiers will be held to account for every crime against Ukraine and Ukrainians," Zelenskyy said.
The Russian Defense Ministry didn't acknowledge striking a residential building in Mykolaiv, saying only that an ammunition depot was destroyed "in the area of the city."
The president's office said Russian drones, rockets and heavy artillery strikes across eight regions killed at least 14 civilians between Thursday morning and Friday morning.
The state of the key Antonivskiy Bridge that links the western and eastern banks of the Dnieper in the Kherson region remained unclear Friday. 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."
Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Europe, described the retreat from Kherson as a "colossal failure" for Russia and said Russian military commanders should have pulled all their forces out of the city "weeks ago," to put the Dnieper River between them and Ukraine’s advancing troops.
Hodges, speaking in a phone interview with The Associated Press, said he expected Ukrainian commanders would work to keep the pressure on Russia’s depleted forces in the weeks ahead, ahead of a possible future push next year for Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014.
Russia is "going to have a very difficult time over the next several months continuing to hold back a very confident Ukrainian military that has a strong wind in their back" in the wake of the offensive for Kherson, he said.