Russian missiles pound Ukraine’s energy system
Russia struck power facilities across Ukraine with missiles yesterday, the day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky concluded a tour of Western capitals, as Ukrainian officials said a long-awaited Russian offensive was under way in the east.
Ukraine's air force said 61 of a total 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 over the last four months, leaving millions of urban 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 Zelensky ended a tour of London, Paris and Brussels with standing ovations ringing in his ears, though no public promises of the fighter jets he was asking for.
Kyiv's mayor Vitali Klitschko said 10 Russian missiles had been shot down over the Ukrainian capital after air raid sirens blared across the country during the morning rush hour and officials urged weary civilians to heed them and shelter.
European Council President Charles Michel said the attacks were indiscriminate and constituted war crimes.
"The EU and its member states stand by Ukraine and all Ukrainians. And will further speed up the provision of military equipment, including air defence," he tweeted.
Russia denies targeting civilians and says the facilities it attacks are relevant to Kyiv's war effort.
Ukraine has been bracing itself for a new Russian offensive in the belief that, after months of reverses, President Vladimir Putin wants to tout a battlefield success before the anniversary of the invasion he launched on Feb 24.
Putin will give his delayed annual showcase address to parliament, akin to the US president's State of the Union speech, on Feb 21. That was the date last year when he recognised the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent, a prelude to invading.
The complete capture of those provinces, among four that Russia subsequently claimed to have annexed, would let Putin assert that one of his main priorities had been achieved.
Moscow's main recent focus has been the small city of Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of around 70,000 that has mostly fled, in the swath of Donetsk outside Russia's grasp.
After months of static artillery battles that have become known to both sides as the "meat grinder", Russian forces, including the Wagner private army which has recruited tens of thousands of convicts with a promise of pardons, have finally begun to encircle the city.
Britain's Defence Ministry said Wagner forces appeared to have advanced two to three km around the north of Bakhmut since Tuesday - a remarkably rapid push in a battle where 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 its numbers with prisoners, Russia's regular army is now able to deploy many of the 300,000 or more men enlisted in a forced mobilisation 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.
Asked on Ukrainian television if he agreed that the Russian offensive had already begun, Pavlo Krylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, said on Thursday: "Yes, definitely."
Moldova accused Russia of firing missiles through its air space and summoned Moscow's ambassador. Romania, a Nato member, denied Ukrainian reports that one of the Russian missiles had also flown over Romanian air space.