Russia said its forces had edged forward in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday and Kyiv said Moscow was “planning something” in the south, while NATO sought to shore up other countries that fear destabilization from Moscow.
Ukraine’s General Staff said earlier that its troops had repelled six Russian attacks in 24 hours in the eastern Donbas region, while Russian artillery had relentlessly shelled across the Dnipro River, including at Kherson city, in the south.
Winter weather has hampered fighting on the ground, and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has told Ukrainians to expect a major Russian barrage this week on Ukraine’s stricken electricity infrastructure, which Moscow has pounded roughly weekly since early October.
“These are President (Vladimir) Putin’s new targets. He’s hitting them hard,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after NATO talks in Bucharest.
Putin had focused his “fire and ire” on Ukraine’s civilians by bombing more than a third of its energy system supplying power and water, but the strategy will not work, Blinken said, adding that NATO was also concerned by China’s ties with Moscow.
The NATO allies offered on Wednesday to help nearby Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia, all under pressure from Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
“If there is one lesson from Ukraine it is that we need to support them now,” Stoltenberg told a news conference, while Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told Reuters “the beast also wants to take control of the Western Balkans.”
Ukraine’s president said Russian forces were attacking Ukrainian government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces which make up the eastern Donbas, as well as Kharkiv in the northeast, where Ukraine pushed them back in September.
“The situation at the front is difficult,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.
“Despite extremely large losses, the occupiers are still trying to advance” in the east and “they are planning something in the south,” he said, without elaborating.
A teenager was killed when Russia shelled a hospital in the northern Sumy region and another person was killed and one wounded in Russia’s Kherson shelling, other officials said.
Russia said later that its forces had taken full control of three settlements in the Donetsk region – Andriivka, Belogorovka and Pershye Travnya – and destroyed a warehouse in the southeastern Dnipropetrovsk region containing U.S.-made HIMARS shells.
Reuters could not independently verify the latest battlefield reports.
NATO ministers began a two-day meeting in Bucharest on Tuesday with pledges both to help Ukrainians cope with what the defense alliance’s chief said was Moscow using winter weather as “a weapon of war” and to help sustain Kyiv’s military campaign.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the outcome showed NATO was “absolutely not interested in a political and diplomatic solution in Ukraine.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba said Ukrainians needed fast and lasting help, and he was looking to the global South as well as the West to join “this common struggle.”
Kuleba also demanded Russia withdraw its forces from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, where Moscow announced it had put the Ukrainian chief engineer in charge. Ukraine has said the engineer is a hostage.
Washington pledged $53 million to buy power grid equipment, and U.S. President Joe Biden said providing more military assistance is a priority. Republicans, who take control of Congress’ House of Representatives in January, have talked about pausing the funding, which has exceeded US$18 billion.
In Kyiv, snow fell and temperatures were expected to remain below freezing as millions in and around the capital struggled to heat their homes after attacks on infrastructure that Kyiv and its allies say are aimed at harming civilians, a war crime.
Workers have raced to repair the damage even as they anticipate more; electricity supplies crept back up towards three quarters of needs, national grid operator Ukrenergo said, a full week after the worst Russian barrage so far.
Moscow, which has declared large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine annexed, says Ukrainians can end their suffering by accepting demands it has not spelled out. Ukraine says it will fight on until Russia withdraws completely.
Kyiv, where nearly 1 million people were without power on Tuesday, will see more emergency power cuts on Wednesday, DTEK, Ukraine’s biggest private electricity producer, said.
The European Union said it aims to use proceeds from investing Russian assets it has frozen to help compensate Ukraine for the damage Moscow has inflicted, and proposed the establishment of a court to try “Russia’s crime of aggression.”
Kyiv welcomed the moves, saying Moscow had no legitimate goals. “It invaded another country violating international law, deliberately destroys its infrastructure and commits mass murders,” Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.
Russia says the freezing of assets is theft, and denies that the invasion, which it calls a “special military operation” to disarm its neighbor, constitutes the war crime of aggression.
An overnight Russian missile attack damaged a gas distribution facility in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, while shells and heavy artillery hit Nikopol and Marganets – towns across the Dnipro river from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor station, the governors of the two regions said.
Ukrainian forces struck a power plant in Russia’s western Kursk region on Tuesday, causing some electricity outages, the regional governor there said. In Russia’s Bryansk region bordering Ukraine’s northeast, a local governor said a large oil storage tank was on fire on Wednesday, without giving a cause.