Ukrainian forces have recaptured more than 40 towns in southern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday, as Russia announced it was pulling its troops from Kherson.
“The number of Ukrainian flags returning to their rightful place in the framework of the ongoing defense operation is already dozens, 41 settlements were liberated,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.
Kherson, a strategic port city on the Dnipro River, was captured within days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
On Wednesday, Moscow announced that it had made the “difficult decision” to withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro, which includes Kherson.
By Thursday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its units were leaving the area, Reuters reported.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters that it would take a week for Russian troops to leave the city. He added that Moscow still has 40,000 troops in the region and its intelligence showed Russian forces remained in and around the city.
The rest of the Kherson region forms a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014, Agence France-Presse reported. Kherson also is one of the four provinces that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed in September, a move the United States and other countries have condemned as illegal.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced Thursday the United States will provide air defense systems and surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine as part of a new $400 million security assistance package.
With “Russia’s unrelenting and brutal air attacks on Ukrainian civilian and critical infrastructure, additional air defense capabilities are critical,” deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh told journalists, according to The Associated Press.
The Pentagon said the package would include four short-range, highly mobile Avenger air defense systems — the first time they have been provided to Ukraine — as well as the Stinger missiles they fire.
Zelenskyy thanked U.S. President Joe Biden and the American people for the assistance, tweeting: “Together we’re building an air shield to protect (Ukrainian) civilians. We’re bringing victory over the aggressor closer!”
The package brings to more than $18.6 billion the total U.S. security assistance to Ukraine since Russian forces invaded in February.
Ukrainian forces are pushing toward Kherson.
Yaroslav Yanushevych, Ukraine’s appointed governor for the region, said on Telegram that Russian troops had “taken away public equipment, damaged power lines and wanted to leave a trap behind them,” Reuters reported.
Russia has denied deliberately targeting civilians.
However, since Moscow invaded Ukraine, the conflict has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and destroyed Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.
In mid-October, the U.N. refugee agency said there were more than 7.6 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe, including 2.85 million in Russia. It said another 7 million people have been uprooted within Ukraine.
Since February, “aid workers have provided critical aid and protection services to some 13.5 million people across all regions of Ukraine,” Stephanie Tremblay, an associate U.N. spokesperson, told reporters Thursday in New York.
Late Wednesday, U.S. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated that about 200,000 soldiers – 100,000 each of Russian and Ukrainian troops – have been killed in the fighting so far, Reuters reported. He said about 40,000 civilians caught up in the fighting have also been killed.
On Friday, the United Nations said senior U.N. and Russian officials are to meet in Geneva for discussions to extend a deal that allowed Ukrainian grain to return to world markets and was supposed to eliminate obstacles for Russian exports of grain and fertilizer.
The agreement expires Nov. 19, and Ukraine and Western nations are pressing for it to be extended, AP reported. However, Russia’s government has said it is undecided, expressing dissatisfaction with how the deal has worked for its side.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.