The day after Moscow declared its retreat from the crucial capital city of Kherson province, Ukrainian soldiers recaptured dozens of communities littered with landmines abandoned by Russian forces in southern Ukraine, officials said.
According to a Ukrainian military analyst and media pundit, there were indications on Thursday night that Ukrainian forces were drawing closer to the city of Kherson, a port at the mouth of the Dnieper River.
It will take at least one week for Russia to withdraw from the city of Kherson, Ukraine's Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters on Thursday. Reznikov stated that Russia still maintained 40,000 troops in the region and that intelligence indicated that its forces were in and around the city.
Wednesday, Russia announced it would withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro, which includes Kherson, the only regional capital Moscow has conquered since invading Ukraine in February.
A withdrawal would mark the third time the smaller Ukrainian force has repelled the Russians, who were blocked in March from seizing Kyiv in the north. Then, in September, Ukrainian forces expelled Russian occupiers from Kharkiv's northeastern sector.
The province of Kherson is one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have illegally annexed at the end of September and that the majority of countries condemned as unlawful.
The city of Kherson was within range of Ukrainian artillery, and the nearest Ukrainian reconnaissance patrols were less than 18 kilometers (11 miles) away, Ukrainian military analyst Yuri Butusov stated via the Telegram messaging application.
"Ukrainian forces are attempting to enter Kherson on the retreating enemy's back," he stated. "Firefights are breaking out in the vicinity of the river crossings, where Russian soldiers are positioned."
In his Thursday evening video address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reported that Ukrainian forces have liberated 41 communities as they move across the south.
He stated that sappers and pyrotechnicians were removing thousands of unexploded landmines and munitions from locations retaken from Russian forces.
Zelenskyy stated that approximately 170,000 square kilometers (66,000 square miles) needed to be de-mined, including areas where fighting was still ongoing and "where the enemy will plant landmines prior to its evacuation, as is the case with Kherson now."
Yaroslav Yanushevych, the Ukrainian-appointed governor of the region, stated on Telegram that Russian troops had "stolen public equipment, broken electrical lines, and intended to leave behind a trap."
Mykhailo Podolyak, a Zelenskyy adviser, stated that Russia intended to transform Kherson into a "city of death" by mining everything from residences to sewers and shelling the city from across the river.
Russia denies intentionally attacking civilians, despite the conflict killing thousands, displacing millions, and destroying Ukrainian cities.
On the Ukrainian national Espreso TV website, Volodymyr Molchanov, a commentator from Kherson, was reported as saying, "There are no indications that a trap is being set in Kherson." "Russian forces began withdrawing yesterday (Wednesday)... In attempting to cross the Dnipro, the opposition is suffering heavy losses.
A withdrawal from Kherson would unleash forces from both sides to fight elsewhere, according to military analysts, and there was no indication that Moscow had completed its "special military operation" against its pro-Western neighbor.
"It's undeniably a turning moment, but that doesn't imply Russia has lost or Ukraine has triumphed," said Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He stated that Russia was still capable of launching a new onslaught or counterattack. It is far too early to give up on them.
A small group of Ukrainian soldiers was received by jubilant villagers in the middle of the village of Snihurivka, approximately 55 kilometers (35 miles) north of the city of Kherson, as the Ukrainian flag fluttered above the square in the background. Reuters confirmed the video's location.
A few kilometers away, in a destroyed frontline village accessed by Reuters in a territory already occupied by Ukrainian forces, the guns fell silent for the first tranquil night since the start of the war, according to locals.
"We hope the silence indicates the Russians are going," said Nadiia Nizarenko, 85, about the current situation. Svitlana Lischeniuk, Nizarenko's 63-year-old daughter, speculated that the Russians may be creating a trap.