KHERSON, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine made an unannounced visit to the newly freed city of Kherson on Monday, reveling in perhaps the most significant success by his country’s forces since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February.
“We are, step by step, coming to all of our country,” he said to a crowd of hundreds of people, some wrapped in Ukrainian flags. “I am happy we are in Kherson.”
The president’s visit to Kherson just days after it was retaken was a tangible sign of Ukraine’s soaring morale and its growing boldness in the nearly nine-month war. Kherson, a vital Black Sea port and a gateway to Crimea, was the first major city to fall to Russian forces after the start of the invasion on Feb. 24. Russia’s decision to withdraw was a major blow to the Kremlin and its ambition to conquer all of southern Ukraine.
At the same time, there were palpable reminders that the conflict was continuing. While he was talking, explosions — possibly Ukrainian forces deactivating mines — echoed in the distance. And Russian forces remained nearby, across the Dnipro River, within striking distance, another reminder of the immediate threat to the civilian population.
Mr. Zelensky was surrounded by dozens of soldiers and police officers carrying rifles, underscoring the daring nature of the visit.
The crowd of several hundred people cheered and shouted “glory to Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian president wore a hooded parka and cargo pants and looked a bit bleary-eyed but defiant. He spoke in front of the Kherson regional administration building, where only a few days ago the tricolors of the Russian flag flew above its imposing facade, and vowed to restore all of the land occupied by Russia to Ukraine.
Andriy Yermak, the head of the Mr. Zelensky’s office, posted a video of the Ukrainian flag being raised above the city.
Russia captured the Kherson region early in the conflict in March. Last week, the Kremlin ordered the withdrawal of its forces as Ukraine’s military bore down on the city, and later took control. Ukrainian troops arrived in triumph to be greeted by the remnants of the population.
Since September, Ukraine has recaptured territory in the northeast of the country, as well as in the south.
Mr. Zelensky stayed for only about 10 minutes. After he left, the crowd stayed.
A satellite dish had been set up in the square, and scores of people continued to try to reach loved ones.
Alina Samofalova, 26, who works at a human resources agency in Kherson and was wearing a yellow and blue flag over her shoulders, came to the main square Monday morning unaware that Mr. Zelensky was on his way.
“I am so excited he came,” said Ms. Samofalova, whose nails were painted yellow. “When the orcs were here, it was a gray mood like a black-and-white movie,” she said, using a common insult to refer to Russian soldiers.
“Now, it is like the sun is shining over the city.”
There is no power, heat, running water or internet, and Ukrainian officials have asked people to leave the city while it is made safe and essential services are restored.
Ms. Samofalova said she came to the square because it had such good energy. The fact that Mr. Zelensky would risk his own safety, she said, sent an important message to the people.
“When the government and president come to hear our problems,” she said, “they seem close to the people.”
Marc Santora, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.