A defiant Volodymyr Zelenksy has vowed to rebuild heat, water and electrical infrastructure in Kherson after Russian troops destroyed a key Ukrainian dam before fleeing the city dressed as civilians.
The Ukrainian president has said authorities will ‘restore everything’ damaged by Kremlin forces as part of a brutal nine-month occupation which ended late last week.
In a humiliating defeat for Russian president Vladimir Putin, his forces fled the city amid a Ukrainian counter offensive, with some dressing up as civilians in a desperate bid to avoid being captured. It meant his troops had given up the only regional capital Moscow has captured in the nine months’ since the invasion.
In what appeared to be a final act of retaliation, the despot’s troops blew up the Nova Kakhovka dam as they retreated across the Dnipro River , as well as allegedly destroying the Antonovsky Bridge, which is the other main crossing point over the river in the Kherson region.
It is not known whether the destruction was carried out in revenge for having to retreat or a tactical move to prevent Ukrainian troops surging after the Russian forces – Putin is yet to comment publicly on the action.
The decision to blow up the dam was condemned as ‘reckless’ and has sparked fears it could create a crisis at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, the Mail on Sunday reports.
Ukrainian experts last night warned that if the dam were destroyed, it would drain the huge Kakhovka reservoir, which supplies cooling water for the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, and the deluge would flood hundreds of thousands of homes. The nuclear plant is still under Russian occupation.
For those in Kherson however, those worries were far from their minds as Ukrainian troops were greeted by jubilant civilians cheering and waving flags as they arrived in the city last week.
It signalled an end to the brutal Russian occupation that had been in place since February, with phone and internet connections restored, allowing people to phone worried relatives living outside the city for the first time in months.
Russian flags were torn down outside administrative buildings and replaced with the yellow and blue of Ukraine, with videos showing tearful citizens thanking soldiers.
The Independent reports that after fleeing Kherson, which is the region’s administrative centre, Russia declared it had set up a new ‘temporary capital’.
It reports that Russian state news agency Tass said the city of Henichesk, which borders Crimea and the Sea of Azov nearly 200km away, is now the temporary capital of the region.
However, how long this will be the case remains to be seen, with Zelensky saying last night that his troops would not rest until the city, along with Melitopol and Crimea, is back under Ukrainian control.
Pictures released by Maxar Technologies show damage to sections of the northern part of the dam and sluice gates after the explosion
CCTV shows the moment Putin’s army blows up the hydroelectric dam before another explosion erupts along the power lines from the dam
The Antonovsky Bridge, which is the main route out of Kherson, appears to have been completely destroyed overnight
Antonovsky Bridge and Nova Kakhovka Dam were the two main crossing points in the Kherson region over the Dnipro River before they were destroyed by retreating Russian troops
The Ukrainian flag was flying over Kherson city centre as locals began gathering to welcome Kyiv’s troops after Russia said it had completed its withdrawal in the early hours
Kherson was the first major city to fall to Russia’s troops and the only regional capital they have captured – spending eight months under occupation before being liberated
Speaking the last night, Zelensky said his troops were already in the process of making the area safe and dealing with dangers left behind by the Russians.
He said: ‘As of this evening, the defence fores have established control in more than 60 settlements of Kherson region, the police have started stabilisation measures. Stabilisation measures are also underway in Kherson.
‘Our explosive experts have a lot of work everywhere in the freed territory. Almost 2,000 explosive items have already been removed, mines, tripwires, unexploded ammunition.
‘Before fleeing from Kherson the occupiers destroyed critical infrastructure, communications, supply of water, heat, electricity. Russian forces everywhere have the same goal – maximum mockery of people. But we will restore everything, believe me.’
He added that fierce fighting in the Donetsk region was continuing to take place, but vowed his forces would not stop until all Ukrainian territory is retaken.
‘Although it takes time, but everyone already understands the result will be ours, the Ukrainian,’ he said.
‘And especially these are words of gratitude to those who endure Russian attacks in the Donetsk region – it is just hell there. There are extremely fierce battles there every day. But our units defend bravely, withstand the terrible pressure of the occupiers, maintain our defence lines. This is very important.
‘Due to strong defence there, in Donetsk region, we can conduct offensive operations in other directions. I thank all our soldiers who are defending Ukraine in these particularly tough battles.
‘Today we all feel elation together. I don’t know if there is anyone here who hasn’t watched the video of our Kherson residents greeting Ukrainian. Months of Russian occupation, months of mockery of our people, months of stories that Russia is allegedly there forever. And still there is a sea of Ukrainian flags on the streets.
‘People did not even think of giving up on Ukraine. And the world sees it now. It sees what it means when Ukrainians meet their own. It sees what the unity of Ukrainians means. And they see why we must free our entire land from the occupiers.
‘It will be the same in Henichesk and Melitopol. We will come to all our cities and villages of Donbas. We will definitely see how Ukrainian forces will be met in Crimea with Ukrainian flags which are kept there, which will be on the streets in hundreds on the day of liberation.’
Ukraine had warned that Russia could be laying a trap for its forces in Kherson, but pressed ahead rapidly with an attack overnight and is now thought to have all-but surrounded the city
A satellite image shows destroyed Darivka bridge in Kherson. Images which have emerged show significant damage to several bridges following the hasty withdrawal of Putin’s forces
This satellite image released and collected by Maxar Technologies on November 11 shows an overview of damaged Antonovsky bridge in Kherson
Seized by Russia at the beginning of the war, the Kakhovka dam provides one of the last remaining routes over the Dnipro river in the region
The Nova Kakhovka dam’s strategic importance
The dam, which is 30 metres tall and 3.2 km long, was built in 1956 on the Dnipro river as part of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant.
It holds an 18 km3 reservoir which, the volume of water in which is about equal to the Great Salt Lake in the U.S. state of Utah.
Seized by Russia at the beginning of the war, the Kakhovka dam provides one of the last remaining routes over the Dnipro river in the region.
It supplies water to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, and to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.
Moscow and Kyiv have exchanged allegations regarding damage done, or expected to be done, to the dam.
Ukraine has said that Russia has mined the dam while Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, previously said Kyiv planned to undertake missile strikes on it.
Ukrainian officials said the allegation was a sign that Moscow planned to attack the dam and blame Kyiv.
Analysts from the Institute for the Study of War concluded in late October that such a ‘false-flag attack’ could work to cover Russia’s retreat from Kherson and act as a distraction from its latest battlefield humiliation.
President Zelensky previously said that by blowing the dam, Moscow would be destroying the water supply to Crimea and thus show that Russia had accepted that it could not hold onto the peninsula.
The dam was built in 1956 on the Dnipro river as part of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant
Losing the Kherson region means Russia no longer has uninterrupted land access to Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
As Putin’s troops retreated from the region, some have even resorted to dressing up in civilian clothing as they try to escape, the MoD said.
An adviser to the Ukrainian defence minister has said there is ‘panic’ in Russian ranks while Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the retreat from Kherson marked ‘another strategic failure’ for Moscow and ‘humiliation’ for Putin’s army.
He said: ‘In February, Russia failed to take any of its major objectives except Kherson.
‘Now with that also being surrendered, ordinary people of Russia must surely ask themselves: ‘What was it all for?’
‘The Russian army has suffered a huge loss of life as a result of their illegal invasion and have only achieved international isolationism and humiliation. Ukraine will press on.
‘The UK and the international community will continue to support them, and while the withdrawal is welcome, no one is going to underestimate the continuing threat posed by the Russian Federation.’
However, there was concern about the damage caused to the Soviet-era Nova Kakhovka dam and the potential knock-on effect to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.
The chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, said that the dam, which was built in 1956, had been rigged up with explosives by Russians and the structure’s integrity was ‘inextricably’ linked to the safety of the nuclear power station.
A member of the Kherson regional government, Serhiy Khlan, said that the dam’s destruction threatens the reactor’s coolant system and could lead to catastrophe.
Yuriy Kostenko, a former Ukrainian government minister responsible for his country’s nuclear power, warned that without water from the dam’s reservoir the plant would face disaster. He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘When a tsunami wrecked the reactor cooling system at a large Japanese nuclear power station some years ago, disaster was only averted by bringing in a huge, mobile pumping facility, which used sea water for cooling.
‘I know that the Russians have explosives already in place at the dam. I believe that Nato has such a mobile pumping facility as was used in Japan and it should prepare to transport it here.’
Ukrainian government sources said many of the occupation forces and their families near the dam have been evacuated.
Mr Kostenko said that flooding would also destroy the pipeline that provides water to the mostly barren Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. He said: ‘If the Russians blew the dam they would harm their own people.’
The road over the dam was obliterated in Friday night’s attack. Water appeared to be seeping through yesterday but the dam is in an area still occupied by Russian forces and Ukrainian engineers said they were unable to access it to assess the full scale of the damage yesterday.
Benjamin Strick, a London-based analyst, said satellite images showed damage to ‘sections of the northern extent of the dam and sluice gates deliberately destroyed’. Breaching the dam would release a devastating tidal wave that authorities warned would kill hundreds or thousands and sweep away scores of villages. But intelligence chief Maj-Gen Budanov said it would need ‘tens of tons of properly placed explosives’ to destroy it.
A child holds a Ukranian flag as people gather in Maidan square, Kyiv, to celebrate the liberation of Kherson
A man waves a flag after President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that the city of Kherson is back in Ukrainian hands on Friday
As Zelensky’s troops arrived in Kherson’s main square hours after the bulk of Moscow’s forces fled back across the Dnipro River, flag-waving locals wept, chanted the name of the Ukrainian armed forces and kissed the soldiers.
Ukraine’s artillery had pounded the city and river crossings overnight and into the early hours in the hopes of destroying any last Russians trying to flee. Rumours swirled that thousands of troops might be trapped in the city, but as they day wore on those hopes seemed to be ill-founded.
Fears that Russia could be laying some kind of trap also failed to materialise, perhaps suggesting a disinformation campaign to delay the Ukrainian advance long enough for soldiers to get out.
Videos showed Moscow’s troops crossing the Dnipro as the sun rose, before they blew up crossing points to stop anyone following.
British intelligence analysts believe Moscow’s exit from Kherson, a strategically key city, likely started as early as October 22, when Russian-installed figures urged civilians to leave.
Ukraine is retaking large swathes of the Kherson region on the western bank of the Dnipro River, with its forces largely in control of city itself.
Russia said its troops finished withdrawing from the western bank at 5am local time on November 11, paving the way for Ukraine to reclaim more territory.
Videos and pictures posted on social media later showed residents celebrating in the streets, with the Ukrainian flag flying over a central Kherson square.