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KYIV (Reuters) – Russian missiles hit power facilities across Ukraine on Friday, the day after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy concluded a tour of Western capitals, as Kyiv said a long-awaited Russian offensive was underway 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. Zelenskyy ended a tour of London, Paris and Brussels where he was enthusiastically received but secured no public promises of the fighter jets he was asking for.
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.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukraine was without 44 percent of nuclear generation and 75 percent of thermal power capacity.
European Council President Charles Michel said the attacks 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 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 February 24 invasion.
Mr. Putin will give his delayed annual showcase address to parliament on February 21. That was the date last year when he recognized as independent the parts of the Ukrainian regions 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.
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 known to both sides as the “meat grinder,” Russian forces have finally begun to encircle the city. Their troops include the Wagner private army that has recruited tens of thousands of convicts with a promise of pardons if they survive.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Wagner forces appeared to have advanced two to three km around the north of Bakhmut since Tuesday—a 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 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 armored 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 armored vehicles, promised lately by the West.
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.