(Kherson) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled Monday to Kherson, a major city in southern Ukraine recaptured Friday from the Russian army after weeks of fighting.
At the same time, after three-hour talks with his American counterpart Joe Biden on the eve of a G20 summit shunned by Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, credited so far with tacit support to Russia, said he was “very concerned” about the conflict in Ukraine.
“It is impossible to kill Ukraine”, launched in Kherson Volodymyr Zelensky, during a surprise visit to the city liberated three days ago by the Ukrainian army.
“The price of this war is high,” he added, quoted by the presidency. “We are going step by step to all the temporarily occupied territories of our country. […] It is a long and difficult path,” he acknowledged.
The Kremlin for its part continued to affirm that the Ukrainian city, officially annexed in September along with the region of the same name, belonged to Russia although its troops had to abandon it.
US President Joe Biden hails “significant victory” over Ukraine’s takeover of Kherson, but says outcome of war “remains to be seen” after meeting with Xi Jinping in Indonesia. The two men agreed on their “opposition” to any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to the White House.
In Kherson, hand on heart, like other civilian and military officials present, Volodymyr Zelensky sang the national anthem as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the regional administration building in central Kherson.
According to photos posted on Telegram, the Ukrainian leader, dressed in khaki, also walked the streets of the city, surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards, without however wearing a helmet or a bulletproof vest himself.
Many residents, some draped in Ukrainian colors, were massed in his path.
“Glory to Ukraine! “, shouted residents from the balcony of a building. “Glory to the heroes! “, replied in accordance with tradition the head of state and those who accompanied him, according to a video relayed on social networks.
“Difficult months ahead”
Russian forces were forced to withdraw last week from Kherson after eight months of occupation, leaving the way open for Ukrainian soldiers to enter the city on Friday.
Asked about this trip of the Ukrainian president to Kherson, the Kremlin for its part continued to affirm that the city belonged to Russia.
“We will not comment, you know very well that this is the territory of the Russian Federation,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Kherson had been the first major city and the only regional center to fall after the Russian invasion launched at the end of February. The forced withdrawal of troops from Moscow in the face of pressure from the Ukrainian counter-offensive was a snub for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists in September.
“The coming months will be difficult” for Ukraine, however, warned NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
“We must not make the mistake of underestimating Russia,” he said in The Hague, saying that “Putin’s goal is to leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter.”
The Russian army has carried out several waves of massive kamikaze missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure in recent weeks.
She claimed Monday to have conquered a locality in eastern Ukraine, Pavlivka, a rare success claimed by Moscow after weeks of setbacks and retreats.
In his daily address, Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday evening accused the Russian forces of having committed “atrocities” in Kherson as in the other previously liberated regions.
He claimed that 400 Russian “war crimes” had been documented at this point, without specifying whether they related only to the Kherson region.
On Monday, the Ukrainian intelligence service announced that it had arrested a Russian soldier in Kherson “disguised as civilians”, amid fears that soldiers from Moscow are still present in the city.
Questioned by AFP, residents of Kherson recounted the months of Russian occupation and for some, their acts of resistance to help the Ukrainian counter-offensive.
Volodymyr Timor, a 19-year-old boy, said he had noted with his friends for months the movements of Russian soldiers in the city to inform the Ukrainian army.
“We reported everything: where their equipment and ammunition storage places were, where they slept, where they went to drink,” he told AFP.
In the Luhansk region (east) where heavy fighting against Russian forces continues, the Ukrainian army has retaken the village of Makiivka, 50 km northeast of the strategic Russian-controlled city of Sievierodonetsk, has affirmed the Ukrainian presidency on Monday.
A 23-year-old Zambian student, who was serving a heavy prison sentence in Russia, was also killed on September 22 in combat in Ukraine, the Zambian government announced.
The boss of the paramilitary group Wagner, Evguéni Prigojine, reputed to be close to Vladimir Putin, is accused by Ukraine of sending thousands of fighters recruited directly from Russian prisons to the front, against the promise of an amnesty.