Russian missiles hit power facilities across Ukraine on Friday, the day after President Volodymyr Zelensky concluded a tour of Western capitals, as Kyiv said a long-awaited Russian offensive was under way in the east.
Ukraine’s air force said 61 of 71 Russian missiles had been shot down. But Energy Minister German Galushchenko said Russia had hit power facilities in six regions with missiles and drones, causing blackouts across most of Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly attacked civilian infrastructure far from the front lines, leaving millions of Ukrainians without power, heat or water for days at a time in the middle of winter.
The barrages have often followed Ukrainian diplomatic or battlefield advances.
This one came as Mr. Zelensky ended a tour of European allies where he was enthusiastically received but secured no public promises of the fighter jets he was asking for.
“London, Paris, Brussels – everywhere I spoke these past few days about how to strengthen our soldiers – there are very important understandings and we received good signals,” Mr. Zelensky said in his nightly video address. “This concerns long-range missiles and tanks and the next level of our co-operation – fighter aircraft.”
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said 10 Russian missiles had been shot down over the Ukrainian capital after sirens blared during the morning rush hour and weary civilians took shelter.
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Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukraine was without 44 per cent of nuclear generation and 75 per cent of thermal power capacity.
“This is a deliberate targeting of infrastructure that keeps Ukrainians alive in winter,” said U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel. Russia denies targeting civilians and says the facilities it attacks support Kyiv’s war effort.
Ukraine has been bracing for a new Russian offensive, believing that after months of reverses President Vladimir Putin wants to tout a battlefield success before the anniversary of the Feb. 24 invasion. Ukrainian governors in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east said the that thrust had begun.
Mr. Putin will give his delayed annual showcase address to parliament on Feb. 21. That was the date last year when he recognized as independent the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk that were controlled by Russian-backed separatists, a prelude to invading.
The complete capture of those provinces, among four that Russia subsequently claimed to have annexed, would let Mr. Putin assert that one of his main priorities had been achieved.
Also ahead of the invasion anniversary, U.S. President Joe Biden will visit Poland, which neighbours Ukraine, from Feb. 20 to 22 and speak about Ukraine as well as meet with allies, the White House announced on Friday.
Moscow’s main recent focus has been the small city of Bakhmut, with a prewar population of around 70,000 who have mostly fled, in the swath of Donetsk outside Russia’s grasp.
After months of static artillery battles known to both sides as the “meat grinder,” Russian forces have finally begun to encircle the city. Their troops include the Wagner private army, which has recruited tens of thousands of convicts with a promise of pardons if they survive.
Britain’s Defence Ministry said Wagner forces appeared to have advanced two to three kilometres around the north of Bakhmut since Tuesday – a rapid push in a battle in which front lines have barely moved for months.
It said they were now threatening the main western access road to Bakhmut, although a Ukrainian military analyst said supplies were still getting through.
While Wagner has bolstered numbers with prisoners, Russia’s regular army is now able to deploy many of the 300,000 or more men enlisted in a forced mobilization late last year.
Britain also said Russian forces had made some advances near Vuhledar, a strategically important Ukrainian-held bastion at the intersection of the southern and eastern fronts.
But the British report said the limited Russian gains there had most likely come at a high cost in inexperienced units, including at least 30 Russian armoured vehicles abandoned in one failed assault.
The Ukrainian positions in Vuhledar have held since the start of the war as a lynchpin for the front lines, and this week’s assault has been branded as a costly fiasco by some pro-war Russian military bloggers. Grey Zone, a semi-official Wagner channel on Telegram, said that “a disaster is unfolding around Vuhledar, and it is unfolding again and again.”
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
Moldova accused Russia of firing a missile through its air space and summoned Moscow’s ambassador.
Ukraine plans its own major military counteroffensive in the coming months to reclaim more of the nearly one-fifth of Ukrainian territory that Russia occupies.
But it appears likely to wait until it has received at least some of the new weapons, including hundreds of battle tanks and armoured vehicles, promised lately by the West.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Eduard Heger said his country could start talks on delivering MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine now that Kyiv has officially asked for them. “Our MIGs can save innocent lives in Ukraine,” he said.
Away from the battlefield, pressure grew for an outright ban on Russian athletes at the 2024 Olympics, with Lithuania saying 35 countries, including major sports powers the United States, Germany and Australia, would demand that.