Russian troops have seized their first major Ukrainian city since the start of an invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the New York Times reported.
The port city of Kherson, located 126 miles east of Odessa, has a population of roughly 300,000, which would make it the largest locality to come under the control of Russian forces since Russia began its invasion last Thursday, if reports of its capture are confirmed.
“There is no Ukrainian army here,” Kherson’s mayor, Igor Kolykhaev, told the Times. “The city is surrounded.
Russian forces entered Kherson's City Hall Wednesday, according to the Times, and told the mayor that they were setting up a new military administration. Russian troops encircled the city, and local officials reported that there were hundreds of Ukrainian casualties.
Breaking: The strategically important city of Kherson in southern Ukraine has fallen to Russian forces, becoming the first major city to come under Russian control.
“There is no Ukrainian army here,” Kherson’s mayor said.
By @mschwirtz https://t.co/07KmQDa5EC pic.twitter.com/vY7XF3AHUF
— Cliff Levy (@cliffordlevy) March 2, 2022
“I’ve brought on volunteers to help gather up bodies and we’re burying them immediately because many of the bodies have been blown apart,” Kolykhaev told the Times. “If we can make a photograph it makes sense to try to identify them, but if not we put them into bags and bury them that way.”
Earlier in the day, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense denied initial reports that the city had come under Russian control.
“According to the info from our brigade, the battles are going on now,” a government spokesperson said. “The city is not captured totally — some parts are under our control.”
A senior U.S. defense official told the Associated Press that Russian control of Kherson had not been confirmed.
“Our view is that Kherson is very much a contested city at this point,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Late Wednesday, Ukrainian President Voloymyr Zelensky's office told the AP that the battle for the city was ongoing.
If confirmed, the fall of Kherson would represent one of the first major victories for the Russian army in the seven-day-old conflict. Battles continue to rage in other Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv and Kharkiv, the two largest population centers, as outnumbered Ukrainian troops mount a ferocious response that has been aided by ordinary citizens wielding Molotov cocktails.
Russian casualties have been higher than many analysts had predicted, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Putin was to blame.
"This is President Putin's war. This isn't the Russian people's war. It's becoming clearer by the day that the Russian people oppose it," Blinken said on Wednesday. "Members of the Russian military oppose it and had no idea what they were being sent to do. And now the Russian people will suffer the consequences of their leader's choices."
The U.S., NATO allies and several other nations have imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia as punishment for invading Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the United Nations passed a resolution by a vote of 141 to 5 to condemn Putin's "special military operation." While 35 nations, including China and India, abstained from voting, only Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria and Russia voted against the resolution.
"This is not very much a club that I would want to be a member of," Blinken said of the vote.