SNIHURIVKA, Ukraine — The Ukrainian soldiers inched forward in their pickup truck on Thursday, weaving between burned military vehicles, keeping a lookout for mines and pushing deeper in territory vacated by the Russian Army just a few hours earlier.
It was a crystalline fall day. The soldiers drove into town, meeting no resistance. The few remaining residents stood on the roadsides, waving and crying.
“We were waiting for you for so long!” a woman yelled. “We are so happy.”
The Ukrainian Army is moving, cautiously, into areas abandoned by Russian troops along a frontline in southern Ukraine, a day after Russia’s defense minister announced a retreat from the western bank of the Dnipro River, in the latest significant setback for Russia’s military. They advanced into heavily mined towns and villages, navigating around bridges the Russians had blown up during their withdrawal.
Heavy fighting continued in some places, but the Ukrainian advance without a fight into Snihurivka, an important road hub north of Kherson City abandoned overnight, indicates the Russians are indeed retreating. Ukrainian officials had initially been skeptical, fearing a Russian ruse.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s military said it had advanced into 100 square miles of land in the last 24 hours and reclaimed 12 towns and villages.
“The enemy is regrouping and taking measures to partially withdraw troops to the left bank of the Dnipro,” the military said in a statement, referring to the river’s eastern bank, where the Russian military has been building a fallback line of defenses.
Some Russian soldiers were likely still hiding in Snihurivka, said the commander of a reconnaissance unit who provided only his first name, Ihor, for security reasons. “We have a goal to capture them or push them out.”
The soldiers moved gingerly through the town, cautious of mines and booby traps. At one spot, tire tracks covered an anti-tank mine that had not exploded.
In southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military has been reaping rewards of a methodical strategy of shelling behind the Russian front lines, targeting bridges the Russian Army had used to supply troops on the Dnipro’s western bank.
The Russian retreat from towns around Kherson was more methodical and much less chaotic than the withdrawal from the Kharkiv area in northeastern Ukraine in September, officers said.
A case in point is Snihurivka, where several thousand Russian troops emptied out of the town in the past few days. “It was well organized,” said a volunteer commander, Nazar Vytrykush. “They left in convoys over two to three days. They were firing artillery to cover their retreat till the very end.”
Military analysts predicted that it would take several days or even several weeks to get all of the Russian troops out.
The Russians withdrew heavy weapons and most soldiers from Snihurivka earlier in the week, residents said. Russian military trucks had parked in a line on Tuesday evening on Oktyabr Street, they said. By morning, they were gone — loaded, local residents said, with both looted goods and soldiers.
By Wednesday evening, Ukrainian troops were on the western rim of the town, and a firefight broke out, likely with a rear guard covering the Russians’ retreat, said Ihor, the commander of the reconnaissance unit. His troops entered the town on Thursday in armored trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on their beds.
“I felt like crying,” Ihor said. “We are bit by bit liberating Ukraine.”
As the soldiers drove past, people waved. Some ran to the vehicles and hugged soldiers through the windows. One elderly man cried as he talked to a Ukrainian soldier. “Don’t ever leave us again,” he said.