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In a major blow to Putin, Russia says it has fully withdrawn from Kherson

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia now says all of its troops have withdrawn from the southern city of Kherson in Ukraine. This marks a major setback for Russia's war effort. For the latest, we are joined now by NPR's Greg Myre, who is in Kyiv. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is a massive win for Ukrainian forces. What can you tell us?

MYRE: Right. Russia's defense ministry put out a statement this morning saying all their troops had pulled out of Kherson. It's a large city on the west bank of the Dnieper River, and the Russian troops have retreated to the east bank. And this comes less than 48 hours after Russia announced that it would do this. Now, video on social media shows several spans of the main bridge crossing the river are completely destroyed. Ukraine had damaged the bridge, but it appears the Russians took down entire spans as they were leaving. And you may recall Russia annexed Kherson and other regions back in September, saying this was Russian territory forever. So the Kremlin today is still claiming this is Russian territory, though apparently there are no Russians there.

MARTIN: So, Greg, I mean, Russia was occupying this, but was there actual fighting going on between Ukrainian forces and Russian forces?

MYRE: No, no, there really hadn't been in the city. The Ukrainians had started with an offensive that moved toward Kherson back in the early - the fall. They got closer and closer, but it was clear that this offensive was going to succeed. Now, what happened was the Ukrainians were able to fire long-range U.S. weapons, these HIMARS, and hit Russian positions, damage the bridges that the Russians were using to resupply. And this has made - had made the Russians much more vulnerable, and they decided to pull out, rather than stay and fight and risk being trapped.

MARTIN: So what's the situation on the ground there? Russians are gone. Have Ukrainian troops moved in?

MYRE: The Ukrainians were being very cautious for the past day or so. But now Ukraine's military intelligence says the country's troops have entered the city. And we're also seeing videos on social media. They show civilians, many of them wrapped in Ukrainian flags, celebrating in the main city square in front of the main government building. So Kherson and its communications with the rest of the country were pretty much cut off until today. But over the past 24 hours, social media has been exploding as we've seen Ukrainian soldiers approach the city, enter these outlying villages where many elderly residents who'd been under Russian occupation for months are greeting them with hugs and kisses and tears. In one video, we even saw a young woman playing a violin as soldiers drove up into the town. So there's been this great anticipation over the last 24 hours or so as Ukrainian troops approached and have now entered the city of Kherson.

MARTIN: So can you explain in the broader context of the war just how significant Kherson is?

MYRE: Well, this was one of Russia's few real successes. Russia took the city in the very first days of the war in February without a fight. The city was not damaged, so Russia began running the city using Russian currency, a Russian phone system and TV channels. And this is what Russia had hoped to do throughout the country. They also wanted to push further along Ukraine's southern coast, take over all those cities and cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea, which is very critical. But now Russia has left without a fight. It's really Russia's third major retreat from the outskirts of Kyiv, the capital, the second-largest city, Kharkiv, and now Kherson.

MARTIN: NPR's Greg Myre reporting from Kyiv on the news that Russian forces have left the city of Kherson. Thank you.

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

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.