KYIV, Ukraine — On the day after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February, they captured the southern port city of Kherson and raised the tricolor Russian flag over the main regional administrative building. On Thursday, the flag was no longer there.
Russian soldiers, patrols and checkpoints also have become extremely scarce in the city center, some residents say.
For the last two weeks, the Russian occupation’s civilian administration has been steadily clearing out and taking anything they deem of value as they set up new headquarters across the river, 50 miles to the southeast, residents and Ukrainian officials say.
But the apparent removal of Moscow’s flag above the main government building and the scarcity of visible Russian soldiers in central Kherson on Thursday were remarkable, leaving residents wondering what it meant and what might come next.
It almost certainly did not mark the end of the fight for the city. With Ukrainian forces slowly advancing, residents said they were bracing for a battle, stocking up on food and water and preparing shelter.
The Russians have been seen in recent days fortifying defensive positions outside the city, the capital of the Kherson region and the west bank of the Dnipro River. There has been no visual evidence of a mass movement of soldiers across the river toward Russian-held territory.
Photographs of the empty flagpole quickly circulated on Russian and Ukrainian social media on Thursday. “Today, we can say that the tricolored Russian flag was removed from all administrative buildings,” Serhiy Khlan, a Ukrainian official in the Kherson region. “We hope that Ukrainian flag will fly there soon.”
According to Ukrainian military intelligence, Russia has deployed some 40,000 soldiers to the western bank of the Dnipro River, where the city of Kherson lies, to try to stop Ukrainian forces from reclaiming it, the only regional capital to fall under the Kremlin’s control. Ukrainians are advancing on the city from the north and west, but continue to meet fierce Russian resistance.
Ukrainian officials have said they expect the battle for the city to be brutal, as its loss would be a major strategic and symbolic loss for the Kremlin. And they have warned that Moscow could be trying to create the illusion of a pullback to draw Ukrainian forces into a trap.
Internet and telephone service in the city has been unreliable. One resident, Oleksandr, said in a text message that he saw that the Russian flag had been removed from the regional administration building and the “so-called ministries” as he was driving to the market. He asked that his full name not to be used because of safety concerns.
“On one hand I was happy to see that, but on the other I’m worried that it would be anarchy now,” he said. “So I bought extra stuff as I don’t know whether it would be safe to move around the city in the next days or weeks.”
There is little evident panic in the city, although people believe that it is a question of time before bombs begin to fall, according to a resident named Ivan. Residents are stocking up on water and nonperishable foods, as well as gasoline and firewood, he said.
“They are cleaning out and supplying their basements,” he said.
Over the past two days, Ivan said, he saw occupation authorities dressed in civilian clothes stripping local government buildings of goods, taking away furniture, office supplies and even plumbing fixtures. Uniformed soldiers have become scarce in the city, he said.
As battles raged outside the city — with Ukraine claiming to have retaken over 100 towns and villages over the past two months across a region about the size of Belgium — the occupation administration in charge of the city has very publicly announced its departure. Ivan said he and others fear that may not be a good sign.
“I think that they are removing their personnel so that in the case of a breakthrough of the defensive lines, they can easily shell the city,” he said.
Russian pro-invasion military bloggers appeared anxious on Thursday. Some spoke about a possible evacuation of forces. Others hoped that Russia might be luring Ukrainian forces into a trap.
Speaking on Russian state television, Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Kremlin-appointed occupation administration, continued to urge people to evacuate areas on both sides of the Dnipro River, saying Russian troops will “most likely” move to the east bank.
Aleksandr Kots, a journalist with the Russian Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid, posted a video of the main administrative building without the Russian flag. In another video, he drove past other government-related buildings, including the City Hall, that still had flags flying.
Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.