The city of Kherson, strategically located in southern Ukraine at the mouth of the Dneiper River’s exit into the Black Sea, is the first significant urban centre to fall since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Late on Wednesday, Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhayev said Russian troops were in the streets and had forced their way into the city council building.
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Taking control of the city is a significant victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin after a string of military setbacks. Home to about 300,000 people, Kherson is by far the largest town and first regional capital to be in Russian hands.
“This is a defeat [for the Ukrainian army],” said Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from Lviv, in western Ukraine, calling it “a big marker point in this conflict”.
“Tanks are rolling to and from the central area, the Russian] troops are in foot patrols,” he added, describing Kherson as a city with “a lot of resources and fighters”.
“It was a bloody battle to the end.”
Hanna Shelest, director of security programmes at the Ukrainian Prism think-tank, told Al Jazeera that Russian forces now had access to the mainland from Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
“[It’s a significant advance] also because nearby Kherson, you have access to freshwater that supplies Crimea,” Shelest said.
Ukraine had cut off freshwater supply along a canal that had supplied 85 percent of the peninsula’s needs after the annexation.
Some analysts believe one of the Russian army’s goals in southeastern Ukraine is to establish a “land corridor” linking the two breakaway regions held by pro-Russian rebels with Crimea.
“As for now, Russians are trying to get access from Crimea to the shore … and they are assaulting both ways – to the east in the direction of Luhansk and Mariupol, and to the west in direction of Kherson, Nikolaev [Mykolaiv] and Odesa,” Shelest added.
The major port of Odesa, Ukraine’s third-largest city, lies some 200km (124 miles) west of Kherson. If Russian forces overtake Odesa, it would cut Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.
“It’s the biggest seaport; 70 percent of our exports go through the sea,” Shelest said.
Separately, to the east of Kherson, Mariupol’s city council said Russian forces were constantly and deliberately shelling critical civilian infrastructure there.
“The invaders are systematically and methodically trying to blockade the city of Mariupol,” Mayor Vadym Boychenko said in a video broadcast on Thursday.
Constant attacks over the past 24 hours have cut off water and power supply and the local authorities need a ceasefire to restore power, he added.
Nearby, the smaller towns of Berdyansk and Melitopol have also been taken and held by Russian forces.
Meanwhile, in the town of Enerhodar, situated by the Dneiper River southwest of the city Zaporizhzhia, residents on Wednesday blocked the road to Europe’s largest nuclear power station in an apparent standoff with Russian forces.
“The nuclear plant is under secure protection, all the people are standing under Ukrainian flags. Nobody is going to surrender the city, our people are totally determined,” a resident told Al Jazeera.
17:26 EET People blocking the entrance to Enerhodar for Russian troops where nuclear power plant stays guarded by the National Guard. In the neighboring village Russian troops already injured two civilians https://t.co/66Kd1WeePc pic.twitter.com/z5x8Bz8AUk
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) March 2, 2022
During a televised security meeting on Tuesday, Belarusian President and Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko presented what appeared to be an “invasion map”, according to Belarusian journalist Tadeusz Giczan.
The map showed Ukraine divided into four sectors with “military facilities destroyed by missiles from Belarus”, Giczan said.
Shelest said the map showed their forces even occupying Moldova.
At today's security council meeting, Lukashenko showed what looks like an actual invasion map. It shows Ukraine military facilities destroyed by missiles from Belarus, attacks directions (everything agrees except Odessa-Transnistria). Also, Ukraine is divided into 4 sectors. pic.twitter.com/ueqBIFUbyM
— Tadeusz Giczan 🇺🇦 (@TadeuszGiczan) March 1, 2022
The Moldovan foreign ministry said on Wednesday the map indicated a potential strike on Moldova from Odesa and urgently summoned Belarusian Ambassador Anatoly Kalinin.
On Thursday, several other cities, including the capital, Kyiv, northeastern Kharkiv and Mariupol in the southeast continued to be attacked.
But in his latest video address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s defence lines are holding amid Russia’s multipronged assault.
The United Nations said at least one million people have fled Ukraine in the week since Russia’s invasion.