Kherson: has Russia retreated from city in southern Ukraine and what happened to the Antonivskiy bridge?

The retreat from Kherson marks a huge setback for Russia in its war in Ukraine

A key strategic bridge over the Dnieper river has collapsed, according to reports. It comes as Russia’s defence ministry said it has finished pulling out its troops from the western bank of the river dividing Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, including the only provincial capital Moscow had captured since invaded its neighbour.

In a statement carried by Russian state news agencies, the ministry said the withdrawal was completed at 5am on Friday (11 November). No military equipment was left behind, it said, but the retreat still marks another huge setback for Russia in its eight-and-a-half-month war in Ukraine.

Moscow took Kherson soon after the invasion on 24 February — the only provincial capital it has captured — and illegally annexed the wider region of the same name in September. A forced pull-out from the city marks one of Russia’s worst setbacks and recapturing Kherson could allow Ukraine to win back lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow illegally seized in 2014.

A Russian retreat could lead to domestic pressure on the Kremlin to escalate the conflict. But what is happening in Kherson, has Russia withdrawn its troops, and what’s been said?

Has the Antonivsky bridge collapsed?

According to reports the strategic Antonivsky bridge across the Dnieper river has collapsed. Pictured earlier this yearr with craters caused by a Ukrainian rocket strike.

Russian media reports suggested the Antonivskiy bridge was blown up following the Russian withdrawal; while a Ukrainian news site posted an image showing sections of the bridge missing. But Sergei Yeliseyev, a Russian-installed official in the Kherson region, told the Interfax news agency “the Antonivskiy Bridge hasn’t been blown up, it’s in the same condition”.

Footage circulating online appears to show the bridge with significant damage with sections missing having apparently been blown up by retreating Russian forces.

What is happening in Kherson?

The Kremlin remained defiant on Friday, insisting the development in no way represents an embarrassment for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Moscow continues to view the entire Kherson region as part of Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. He said the Kremlin does not regret holding festivities just over a month ago to celebrate the illegal annexation of Kherson and three other occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine.

Shortly before the Russian announcement, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation in the Kherson region 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.

An old woman walks in the Kherson region village of Arkhanhelske on November 3, 2022, which was formerly occupied by Russian forces (AFP via Getty Images)

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 pre-war population of 280,000. Military analysts had also predicted it would take Russia’s military at least a week to complete the troop withdrawal.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Thursday the retreating Russian troops laid mines throughout Kherson to turn it into a “city of death”. He also predicted they would shell the city after relocating across the Dnieper River.

There had previously been caution from the Ukrainian government over the withdrawal, with concerns it may be a trap, but Andriy Yermak, a senior presidential adviser, tweeted: “The Russian army leaves the battlefields in a triathlon mode: steeplechase, broad jumping, swimming,” Social media videos apparently filmed by soldiers on routes toward Kherson showed villagers hugging the Ukrainian troops.

Reports have emerged of residents hoisting Ukrainian flags in places the Russians retreated from, including the city of Kherson. A Ukrainian regional official, Serhii Khlan, said he was told the flags are “appearing en masse all over the place”.

A map showing areas held or regained by Ukraine and placed under Russian control.

He disputed a Russian claim retreating forces took all their equipment with them, saying he was told “a lot” of hardware got left behind. Mr Khlan, who spoke to journalists from outside the city, said he heard some Russian troops were also left behind and had dressed in civilian clothes, possibly with plans to engage in acts of sabotage. He said their exact number was unclear.

The Ukrainian army previously said it had made gains over the past day around Kherson saying they have taken back the town of Snihurivka, which lies around 30 miles north of the city.

Ukraine says it has made pushes on two fronts near Kherson with gains of 7km in the past day. Ukraine’s commander-in-chief Valeriy Zaluzhny said Ukrainian troops had moved forward on two fronts on the western bank of the Dnieper, and taken control of 12 settlements.

While according to reports a video message posted by another official said the Russian-occupied part of the Mykolaiv region was cleared of Russian troops.

What happened in Mykolaiv?

A Russian S-300 missile strike overnight killed six people in Mykolaiv, a city about 42 miles from Kherson’s regional capital, Mr Zelensky’s office said on Friday morning. Rescue crews sifted through the rubble of a five-storey residential building in search of survivors. Mr Zelensky 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,” Mr Zelensky said.

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.

In the Dnipropetrovsk region, more than 50 rockets were fired overnight around cities and towns located across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, according to governor Valentyn Reznichenko.

How will the withdrawal from Kherson affect the war?

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 US assessments showed may already have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

General Ben Hodges, former commanding general of US 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.

Mr Hodges, speaking in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, said he expects Ukrainian commanders will 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.