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KYIV, Ukraine: Russian and Ukrainian troops appeared to be preparing for a major battle on Thursday over the strategic industrial port city of Kherson, in an area that Russian President Vladimir Putin has illegally annexed and placed under martial law.
Fighting and evacuations were reported in the Kherson region as Moscow tried to subject the invaded country to new missile and drone attacks on critical infrastructure.
Putin on Wednesday declared martial law in the Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions in a bid to assert Russian authority in the annexed areas as he faced battlefield setbacks, mobilization troubled troops, growing criticism at home and abroad, and international sanctions.
The unstable status of the illegally absorbed territory was particularly visible in the capital of the Kherson region, where Russian military officials replaced civilian leaders installed in the Kremlin under martial law which came into force on Thursday to defend against a Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The city of Kherson, with a pre-war population of around 284,000, was one of the first urban areas captured by Russia when it invaded Ukraine, and it remains the largest city that ‘she holds. It is a prime target for both sides due to its key industries and major river port. Reports of sabotage and assassinations of Russian officials based in Kherson surfaced for months in what appeared to be one of the most active Ukrainian resistance movements in occupied territory.
Russian-installed officials have urged residents to evacuate for their safety and allow the military to build fortifications. Officials said 15,000 of an expected 60,000 residents were displaced from the city and surrounding areas on Thursday.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had launched 15 attacks on Russian military strongholds in the Kherson region. For his part, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said that Kremlin forces had repelled Ukrainian attempts to advance with tanks on the Khersonian villages of Sukhanove, Nova Kamianka and Chervonyi Yar.
A Russian official based in the region, Vladimir Leontyev, said on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had launched five missile strikes against the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power station about 70 km (44 miles) from the city of Kherson. He told Russian television that if the facilities were destroyed, a critical channel providing water to annexed Crimea would be cut off.
Zelensky countered that the Russians had mined the dam and power plant, intending to blow them up in what he called an act of terrorism to release 18 million cubic meters (4.8 billion gallons) and flood Kherson and dozens of areas where hundreds of thousands of people Direct. 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 the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kherson, and the British Ministry of Defense interpreted this on Thursday to mean: “The Russian authorities are seriously considering a major withdrawal of their forces from the area west of the Dnieper.
Putin tried to solve another problem on Thursday, the partial mobilization of reservists which he ordered last month and estimated that it would be completed by the end of this month by reaching his goal of 300,000 troops. He visited a training center in Russia’s Ryazan region to show progress in solving problems with 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 gun. A military officer showed Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu soldiers wearing body armor and helmets, along with weapons. The officer displayed winter boots, clothing, cooking utensils and other supplies – all to counter images the Russians posted on social media of shabby or non-existent equipment for newly mobilized troops .
In another sign of Russia’s hesitant mobilization, Ukrainian authorities said more than 3,000 Russians had called a hotline for soldiers who did not want to participate in the war and demanded to surrender.
In other developments:
• Russian forces attacked Ukrainian positions near Bilohorivka, a village in the Lugansk region in eastern Ukraine. In the neighboring Donetsk region, fighting raged near the town of Bakhmut. Kremlin-backed separatists have controlled parts of both regions for 8½ years.
• Russia continued to attack energy infrastructure, sending drones and missiles to eight regions, prompting authorities to ask residents to reduce their energy consumption from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and turn off city streetlights. They warned of continued power outages on Friday. In Kryvyi Rih, Russian strikes damaged a power plant and another energy facility, knocking out power to the central Ukrainian city of around 600,000 people. Kryvyi Rih is home to metallurgical plants essential to Ukraine’s economy. Governor Valentin Reznichenko said the city suffered severe damage.
• Ukrainian authorities said missile and drone strikes sparked fires in the southern city of Mykolaiv, with four drones hitting a school. Another school in Komyshuvakha, a village in Zaporizhzhia, also suffered four drone strikes.
• The Ukrainian army general staff reported an increased risk that Russian forces could attack from Belarus to cut off supply routes for Western weapons and equipment. Oleksei Hromov, an official at the General Staff, said Russia was deploying planes and troops to Belarus.
• The White House says Iranian troops are “directly engaged on the ground” in Crimea to support Russian drone attacks, troubling evidence of Tehran’s growing role in assisting Russia as it inflicts suffering on Ukrainian civilians just as the cold weather sets in.
• Despite Kremlin – and Iranian – claims to the contrary, a leading Russian military expert has unwittingly admitted that Iran has supplied Russia with armed drones for use in Ukraine. Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank, asked reporters ahead of a TV interview not to ask him about where the drones came from, unaware he was live. . “We all know they’re made in Iran, but the authorities haven’t acknowledged that,” Pukhov said.
• The EU on Thursday imposed sanctions on the Iranian company Shahed Aviation Industries, as well as three generals of the Iranian armed forces, for undermining the territorial integrity of Ukraine by helping to supply Russia with drones .