People take blanket and lamps during an aid supply distribution in the center of Kherson on November 17, 2022. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)
by Ania TSOUKANOVA
KYIV, Ukraine (AFP) — Fresh Russian strikes hit cities across Ukraine on Thursday, crippling the country’s energy infrastructure and plunging millions into darkness as winter sets in and temperatures drop.
Repeated barrages have disrupted electricity and water supplies across Ukraine, but the Kremlin blamed civilians’ suffering on Kyiv’s refusal to negotiate, rather than on Russian attacks.
AFP journalists in several Ukrainian cities said the latest assault coincided with the season’s first snow, after officials in Kyiv warned of “difficult” days ahead.
“Currently, more than 10 million Ukrainians are without electricity,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday, adding that the regions of Odessa, Vinnytsia, Sumy and Kyiv were most affected.
The strikes on Ukraine’s power grid follow a series of battlefield setbacks for Russia, including last week’s retreat from Kherson.
Since Russian forces ended their eight-month occupation of the strategic southern city, chilling accounts have emerged, with Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubynets describing the conditions there as “horrific”.
Lubynets said authorities had uncovered Russian “torture chambers” where dozens of people had been abused and killed.
On Thursday, Kherson residents rushed to stockpile food, blankets, diapers and winter clothing, with shouting matches and shoving erupting as volunteers tossed supplies into the crowds that had waited hours in freezing rain.
Capturing the fatigue of Ukrainians weathering power and heating outages nine months into the war, British street artist Banksy posted a video to Instagram that showed a woman comforting her child outside a bombed-out kindergarten.
“We already cried so much, we don’t have any tears left,” she says.
The elusive graffiti artist has decorated walls and ruins outside the Ukrainian capital with stencils and murals that some hailed as a symbol of their country’s invincibility.
As winter descends, Moscow and Kyiv managed to extend an agreement allowing Ukraine to export grain through the Black Sea, after the deal’s looming expiration had sparked fears for the global food supply.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said the deal was “essential” to averting a worldwide food crisis.
– ‘Critical infrastructure’ –
As Russia steps up its aerial bombardment of Ukraine, officials say energy infrastructure and other civilian targets are being barraged.
The head of the central region of Dnipropetrovsk, Valentyn Reznichenko, said strikes had hit the administrative center of Dnipro.
“An industrial enterprise has been hit. There is a big fire,” he said, later announcing that 23 people were injured, including a 15-year-old girl.
The capital’s regional administration said, “Four missiles and five Shahed drones were shot down over Kyiv,” referring to Iranian-made suicide drones Moscow has been deploying in swarms against Ukraine targets.
In the southern Odessa region, a Russian strike targeted infrastructure, and the governor warned residents of the threat of a “massive” missile attack, urging them to seek shelter.
The eastern region of Kharkiv was also struck, governor Oleg Synegubov announced, adding that Russia hit “critical infrastructure” in strikes that injured at least three people.
In response, Zelensky described Russia as a “terrorist state” and said Moscow “wants to bring Ukrainians only more pain and suffering”.
The Kremlin, however, said Kyiv was ultimately to blame for the blackouts.
“The unwillingness of the Ukrainian side to settle the problem, to start negotiations, its refusal to seek common ground — this is their consequence,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
On Tuesday, the largest onslaught of Russian missiles on infrastructure across Ukraine cut power to millions, but supplies were largely restored within hours.
Ukrainian energy company Ukrenergo said Thursday that the “cold snap” had brought increased demand in regions where electricity was recently brought back, and government energy adviser Oleksandr Kharchenko told media that 50 percent of Ukrainians were experiencing disruptions.
“We are doing everything to normalize the supply,” Zelensky said.
– ‘Harboring murderers’ –
Tensions spiked earlier this week after a missile landed in a Polish town on the border with Ukraine, and there was a flurry of accusations over who was responsible for the blast that killed two.
Zelensky, after previously saying a Russian missile was to blame, seemed to soften his comments on the incident, which had raised the specter of forcing a NATO response.
“I don’t know what happened. We don’t know for sure. The world does not know,” Zelensky said.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also appeared to roll back Kyiv’s position that it was a Russian missile that struck Poland following a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“Our experts are already in Poland,” Kuleba tweeted. “We expect them to swiftly get access to the site in cooperation with Polish law enforcement.”
The conflict also reverberated in European courts this week as a Dutch judge on Thursday sentenced two Russians and a Ukrainian to life in prison over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
None of the suspects from that earlier stage of hostilities were present in court or likely to serve their sentences, prompting Zelensky to hail the “important” ruling but call for those responsible to be held to account.
The Kremlin dismissed the ruling as politically motivated while Australia accused Moscow of “harbouring murderers”.
© Agence France-Presse