Russia hits Ukraine’s power infrastructure with some of the biggest strikes in recent weeks
By Michael Schwirtz and Matthew Mpoke Bigg
Russian forces pounded Ukraine’s power plants and heating systems Saturday with some of the heaviest missile strikes in weeks, Ukrainian officials said, as Moscow pressed ahead with an aerial campaign to bring misery to the country’s civilians even as it loses ground on the battlefield.
In a sign that Moscow’s forces in the south were coming under pressure, occupation officials in the southern province of Kherson told residents of the region’s capital city on Saturday to “immediately” leave because of the threat of an attack by Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine endures bitter winters, making its people vulnerable at this time of year to energy disruptions. Ukrainian officials confirmed missile strikes in at least a half-dozen regions Saturday, with the country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, saying that the barrage was “aimed at critical civilian infrastructure.”
The state power company said that while it was trying to restore services, it had imposed energy restrictions in a string of regions, including the capital, Kyiv. The damage from Saturday’s attacks, the company, Ukrenergo, said in an online post, was “comparable or may exceed” anything it had seen in the last two weeks.
Not since the first days after the invasion in late February has the bombing been so widespread and intense as it has been in recent weeks. Missiles and self-destructing drones have slammed into apartment buildings, bustling streets, parks and playgrounds, killing dozens of civilians. The attacks have damaged about 30% of Ukraine’s power plants, according to officials, causing rolling blackouts across the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said late Friday that the recent attacks had a clear goal: “to make the Ukrainian people suffer.”
Ukraine has had increasing success in shooting down missiles and self-destructing drones, which are often launched from neighboring Belarus. And on Saturday, as civilians sheltered in basements, the country scrambled its fighter jets to try to blast the incoming missiles out of the sky. Ukraine’s air force command later said on the Telegram messaging app that it had downed 18 missiles.
In Kyiv, the air raid alarms sounded about 7:30 a.m. and were followed quickly by reports of missiles in the air. One video shared by Ukrainian news outlets appeared to show a fighter jet shooting down a missile, although this could not be independently confirmed. Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said five rockets headed toward Kyiv had been intercepted, although there were reports of missile strikes in the surrounding region.
By midmorning, there were reports of strikes across the country. In the city of Lutsk, in western Ukraine, a missile hit a power plant, causing a blackout in part of the city, Mayor Ihor Polishchuk said on Telegram. The blast wave damaged a private home and injured at least one person, he said.
These broad strikes on infrastructure come as Russian forces have faced setbacks on the front lines.
In a rapid counteroffensive, Ukraine recaptured much of Kharkiv province, in the northeast of the country, in September and also has been making gains in Kherson province, in the south. That advance, which began in late August, has left thousands of Russian troops stationed on the western bank of the Dnieper River in the key city of Kherson exposed.
As a result, a withdrawal from the city across the river would make military sense, according to some experts, and Ukrainian military authorities on Friday pointed to signs that Moscow had started to move military equipment out of the city.
Vladyslav Nazarov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern operational command, said at a briefing Friday that while Russia was still trying to hold its occupied areas in the province, Moscow’s forces in Kherson were “quite actively transferring equipment, weapons and even units” to the eastern bank of the river. That claim could not be independently verified.
Russia-backed authorities in the city said last week that they were launching an operation to evacuate civilians to the river’s east bank, and the Russian-installed administration in Kherson province on Saturday added a note of urgency to that call.
“Due to the tense situation at the front, the increased danger of massive shelling of the city and the threat of terrorist attacks, all civilians must immediately leave the city,” it said on Telegram. “Take care of the safety of your family and friends! Do not forget documents, money, valuables and clothes.”
Ukrainian forces have cut the main road bridges close to the city in order to make it harder for Moscow to resupply its troops.
Local pro-Russian officials have for days been sharing videos and photographs of civilians lining up to cross the river, which is about 1 mile wide near the city, in ferryboats, and they said this week that 15,000 civilians had already left. But there was no independent confirmation that a mass evacuation has been taking place.
Ukrainian authorities have said the push to move people amounts to deportation and encouraged citizens in the city to remain at home or try to reach Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Kherson is a strategic asset to the Kremlin as the only province whose capital is west of the Dnieper River where it can claim control. It also holds symbolic value: It was the first city to fall to Russian forces after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced this month that Russia was annexing Kherson along with three other provinces, a unilateral move that has been denounced as illegal both by the government in Kyiv and the United Nations General Assembly.