Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russian and Ukrainian troops appeared Thursday preparing for a major battle for the strategic southern industrial port city of Kherson, in a region that Russian President Vladimir Putin has illegally annexed and placed under martial law.
Fighting and evacuations were reported from the Kherson region as Moscow tried to force the invaded country into submission with further missile and drone attacks on critical infrastructure.
Putin on Wednesday declared martial law in the Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions to assert Russian authority in the annexed territories, amid battlefield setbacks, difficult troop mobilization, mounting criticism at home, abroad and international faced sanctions.
The unsettled status of the illegally seized territory was particularly visible in the Kherson region capital, where Russian military officials have replaced civilian leaders deployed by the Kremlin to defend against a Ukrainian counter-offensive under martial law that went into effect on Thursday.
The city of Kherson, with a pre-war population of about 284,000, was one of the first urban areas conquered by Russia when it invaded Ukraine, and it remains the largest city it holds. It is a prime destination for both sides due to its key industries and large river port. Reports of sabotage and assassination of Russian-deployed officials in Kherson have surfaced for months in one of the most active Ukrainian resistance movements in the occupied territory.
Officials deployed by Russia have urged residents to evacuate for their own safety and allow the military to build fortifications. Officials said 15,000 of an expected 60,000 residents had been relocated from the city and surrounding areas as of Thursday.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said Thursday that Ukrainian forces have carried out 15 attacks on Russian military bases in the Kherson region. For his part, the spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said that Kremlin forces repelled Ukrainian attempts to advance with tanks towards the Kherson villages of Sukhanove, Nova Kamianka and Chervonyi Yar.
A Russian-deployed official in the region, Vladimir Leontyev, said Ukrainian forces launched five rocket attacks on Thursday at the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power station about 70 km (44 miles) from the city of Kherson. He said on Russian television that if the facilities were destroyed, a critical canal supplying water to annexed Crimea would be cut off.
Zelenskyy countered that the Russians had mined the dam and power plant with plans to blow them up in what he called an act of terrorism to release 18 million cubic meters (4.8 billion gallons) of Kherson and dozens of flooding areas where hundreds of thousands of people live. He told the European Council that Russia would then blame Ukraine.
None of the claims could be independently verified.
Russia’s new military commander in Ukraine this week acknowledged the threat posed by Ukraine’s counter-offensive in Kherson, and the UK MoD interpreted this Thursday that “the Russian authorities are seriously considering a major withdrawal of their forces from the area west of the Dnieper.” .
Putin on Thursday tried to address another problem area, the partial mobilization of reservists, which he ordered last month and which he expects to complete by the end of this month, meeting his 300,000-man goal. He visited a training center in Russia’s Ryazan region to show progress in addressing problems in training and supplying newly mobilized troops. Russian television showed him lying under a net in a field, wearing goggles and hearing protection, and firing a rifle. A military officer showed Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and helmets with weapons. The officer displayed winter boots, clothing, cooking utensils and other supplies – all to counteract images Russians have posted on social media of shabby or non-existent gear for newly mobilized troops.
In another sign of Russia’s faltering mobilization, Ukrainian authorities said more than 3,000 Russians have called a hotline for soldiers who do not want to take part in the war and are asking to surrender.
For other developments:
—Russian forces attacked Ukrainian positions near Bilohorivka, a village in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region. In the neighboring Donetsk region, fighting raged near the town of Bakhmut. Separatists backed by the Kremlin have controlled parts of both regions for 8½ years.
— Russia continued to attack energy infrastructure and dispatched drones and missiles in eight regions, prompting authorities to urge residents to cut energy use from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and dim the city’s streetlights. They warned of ongoing power outages on Friday. In Kryvyi Rih, Russian strikes damaged a power plant and another energy facility, cutting off power to the central Ukrainian city of about 600,000 people. Kryvyi Rih is home to metallurgical factories that are vital to the Ukrainian economy. Governor Valentin Reznichenko said the city was badly damaged.
– Ukrainian authorities said rocket and drone strikes have sparked fires in the southern city of Mykolaiv, with four drones hitting a school. Another school in Komyshuvakha, a village in Zaporizhia, was also attacked by four drones.
— The General Staff of the Ukrainian Army reported an increased likelihood that Russian forces could attack from Belarus to cut off supply routes for Western weapons and equipment. Oleksei Hromov, a general staff official, said Russia is stationing planes and troops in Belarus.
– The White House said Iranian troops are “right on the ground” in Crimea to support Russian drone strikes, worrying evidence of Tehran’s increasing role in supporting Russia as it inflicts suffering on Ukrainian civilians just as cold weather sets in .
“Despite claims to the contrary by the Kremlin – and Iran – a top Russian military expert has unwittingly admitted that Iran has supplied Russia with armed drones, which it uses in Ukraine. Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank, asked journalists before a TV interview not to ask him where the drones were coming from because he didn’t know he was on the air live. “We all know that they are made in Iran, but the authorities have not recognized that,” Pukhov said.
—The EU imposed sanctions on Thursday against Iran’s Shahed Aviation Industries, as well as against three generals of the Iranian Armed Forces for undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity by helping to supply Russia with drones.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Andrew Katell in New York contributed to this report.
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