KYIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russia attacked power plants and other infrastructure on Sunday, causing widespread blackouts across Ukraine as Kyiv forces launched a swift counteroffensive that drove troops from Moscow vast territories occupied in the northeast.
The shelling sparked a massive fire at a power plant on the western outskirts of Kharkiv and killed at least one person. President Volodymyr Zelensky has denounced “deliberate and cynical missile strikes” against civilian targets as acts of terrorism.
Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, appeared to be without power on Sunday evening. Cars drove through the dark streets and the few pedestrians used flashlights or cell phones to light their way.
Separately, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the Russian-occupied south was completely shut down in a bid to prevent a radioactive disaster as fighting raged nearby.
Kyiv’s action in recent days to reclaim Russian-occupied areas in the Kharkiv region has forced Moscow to withdraw its troops to prevent them from being encircled, leaving behind a significant number of arms and ammunition in a rushed flight as the war marked its 200th day on Sunday.
Ukraine’s military leader, General Valerii Zaluzhnyy, said his forces had recaptured about 3,000 square kilometers (1,160 square miles) since the counteroffensive began in early September. He said Ukrainian troops are only 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) from the Russian border.
A battalion shared video of Ukrainian forces outside a municipal building in Hoptivka, a village just over a mile from the border and about 19 kilometers (12 miles) north of Kharkiv.
Kharkiv Governor Oleh Syniehubov said Ukrainian troops had regained control of more than 40 settlements in the region.
In Sunday night’s missile attacks by Russia, the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions appeared to bear the brunt. Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia and Sumy had only partially lost power, Zelensky said.
Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov called the power outage “revenge of the Russian aggressor for the successes of our army at the front, especially in the Kharkiv region”.
Ukrainian officials said Russia hit Kharkiv TEC-5, the country’s second-largest thermal and power plant, and Zelensky released video of the burning Kharkiv power plant.
“Russian terrorists remain terrorists and attack critical infrastructure. No military installations, only the purpose of leaving people without light or heat,” he tweeted,
But Zelensky remained defiant despite the attacks. Addressing Russia, he added: “Do you still think you can intimidate us, break us, force us to make concessions? … Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst for us are not so frightening and deadly as your “friendship and brotherhood”. But history will set everything in place. And we will be with gas, lights, water and food… and WITHOUT you!
Later that evening, power had been restored to some areas. None of the failures seem to be related to the shutdown of the reactors at the Zaporizhzhia power plant.
As most of the attention focused on the counter-offensive, the Ukrainian nuclear power operator said that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, had been reconnected to the Ukrainian electricity grid, allowing engineers to shut down its last operational reactor to protect it amid the fighting.
The plant, one of the 10 largest nuclear power plants in the world, has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war. Ukraine and Russia traded blame for bombing around her.
Since a September 5 fire caused by bombing knocked the plant off transmission lines, the reactor had been powering crucial safety equipment in so-called “islanded” mode – an unreliable regime that made the plant increasingly vulnerable. to a potential nuclear accident.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog which has two experts on site, welcomed the restoration of external power. But IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said he was “seriously concerned about the situation at the plant, which remains in danger as long as the bombardment continues”.
He said talks had started on establishing a safety and security zone around her.
In a call Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the withdrawal of Russian troops and weapons from the plant in accordance with IAEA recommendations.
The withdrawal of forces from Moscow in recent days marked the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian forces since they thwarted a Russian attempt to seize Kyiv at the start of the war. The Kharkiv campaign seemed to take Moscow by surprise; he had moved many of his troops from the area south in expectation of a counter-offensive there.
Yuriy Kochevenko of the Ukrainian Armed Forces 95th Brigade tweeted a video from what appeared to be the center of Izyum. The city was considered an important command and supply center for Russia’s northern front.
“Everything around is destroyed, but we will restore everything. Izyum was, is and will be Ukraine,” Kochevenko said in his video, showing the empty central square and destroyed buildings.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian General Staff said Russian troops also left several settlements in the southern Kherson region as Kyiv forces continued the counteroffensive. He did not identify the areas.
But an official in the Russian-backed administration in the city of Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, said on social media that the town north of the Crimean peninsula was safe and asked everyone to remain calm.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that the withdrawal from Izyum and other areas was aimed at bolstering Moscow’s forces in the neighboring Donetsk region to the south. The explanation was similar to how Russia justified its withdrawal from Kyiv earlier this year.
But Igor Strelkov, who led Russian-backed forces when the separatist conflict in Donbass erupted in 2014, scoffed at the Russian Defense Ministry’s explanation of the retreat, suggesting that handing over Russia’s own territory Russia near the border was a “contribution to a Ukrainian settlement”. ”
The retreat angered Russian military bloggers and nationalist commentators, who lamented it as a major defeat and urged the Kremlin to step up its war efforts. Many have criticized Russian authorities for continuing the fireworks and other lavish festivities in Moscow that marked a city holiday on Saturday despite the debacle in Ukraine.
In Moscow, Putin attended the opening of a Ferris wheel in a park on Saturday and inaugurated a new transport link and a sports arena. The action underscored the Kremlin’s narrative that the war it calls a “special military operation” was proceeding as planned without affecting the daily lives of Russians.
Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov criticized the Moscow festivities as a big mistake.
“The fireworks in Moscow on a tragic day of Russia’s military defeat will have extremely serious political consequences,” Markov wrote on his messaging app channel. “Authorities should not celebrate when people are in mourning.”
In a sign of a potential rift in the Russian leadership, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, said the retreat was the result of mistakes made by Russia’s top brass.
“They made mistakes and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions,” Kadyrov said. “If they do not change the strategy for conducting the special military operation in a day or two, I will be forced to contact the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground. . ”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the NATO chief warned on Friday that the war would likely last for months, urging the West to continue supporting Ukraine through what could be a tough winter.
Ukraine’s gains on the battlefield would help as the Biden administration seeks continued financial support for the war effort from Congress and Western allies, said Daniel Fried, former US ambassador to Poland and now prominent member of the Atlantic Council in Washington.
“Biden administration policy is moving in an increasingly justified direction,” Fried said.