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Ukrainians in Kherson celebrate the withdrawal of Russian troops

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, there is joy in the streets.

(CHEERING)

SIMON: Ukrainians celebrated late into the night after Russian troops withdrew from the city. Russia had occupied Kherson since the earliest days of the war. NPR's Greg Myre is in Ukraine and joins us from Kyiv. Greg, thanks so much for being with us.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Russian forces occupied Kherson for more than eight months. First of all, what's the city look like now that the Russians are gone?

MYRE: Well, this was the one city Russia captured without a fight. So it wasn't damaged like we've seen in other Ukrainian cities. But Kherson was cut off. It was really hard to know what was happening there. And in the final days, we're hearing accounts that maybe just ten, 20% of the population was left. Food, water, electricity were all scarce. And residents say the Russian troops were growing even more aggressive and detaining people for some very rough interrogations. So there was just this explosion of joy in the main square when the Russians pulled out. And a really defining image is residents giving watermelons to Ukrainian troops as they entered the city. The watermelon is the symbol of the Kherson region, which is a very rich farming area.

SIMON: Russian troops retreated over a river. So how far away are they? And is there still a danger of fighting?

MYRE: Well, there certainly could be. The Ukrainian military is urging caution. It says these 30,000 Russian troops that left Kherson and the west bank of the Dnieper River are just a few miles away on the east bank, and setting up defensive positions there. Now, Russia also launched missile strikes at a number of places in southern Ukraine overnight. So the fighting isn't over, but the river is a natural barrier that will be difficult for either side to cross.

SIMON: And let's step back for a moment, Greg. How did Ukraine's military force Russian troops out of Kherson without any kind of battle?

MYRE: Yeah. The Ukrainians began this very methodical offensive in the south in the direction of Kherson back in September. And there was lots of fighting in outlying villages. And the Ukrainians were making sort of relatively slow advances, capturing some of these villages. But they were still dozens of miles away from Kherson. And it wasn't clear if they were going to get there before the winter set in. Clearly, a big factor was the U.S. weapons the Ukrainians now have - these long-range artillery guns known as HIMARS. And they allowed Ukraine to hit the Russian troops from a long distance. Ukraine damaged bridges that Russia was using to resupply its troops in Kherson. And so the Russians knew they were in danger of being cut off, so they retreated rather than risk being trapped.

SIMON: This, of course, is a huge defeat for Russia, the military and Vladimir Putin's leadership. Can you tell how Russia's trying to spin this?

MYRE: Yeah, Russia's defense ministry is digging very deep into its bag of euphemisms. It's called this a redeployment, a repositioning, a maneuver. Now, Vladimir Putin has gone absolutely silent. When his spokesman was asked about Kherson, he said this was a military decision, and he had nothing to say. Now, of course, there's no way this could have happened without Putin's approval. And just the latest in a string of humiliating setbacks - this is really Russia's third major retreat this year. First, from the outskirts of Kyiv, the capital and the largest city, then from the areas around Kharkiv, the second largest city, and now Kherson, a major city in the south.

SIMON: NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv. Thanks so much, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.