Putin boosts Russia's war footing as battle looms for Ukraine's Kherson
KYIV/MYKOLAIV, Ukraine (Reuters) -President Vladimir Putin ordered all of Russia to support the war effort in Ukraine on Wednesday, as the Russian-appointed administration of Kherson prepared to evacuate the only regional capital Moscow has captured during its invasion.
Images of people using boats to flee the strategic southern city were broadcast by Russian state TV, which portrayed the exodus on the Dnipro river as an attempt to evacuate civilians before it became a combat zone.
The Russian-installed chief of Kherson – one of four Ukrainian regions unilaterally claimed by Moscow where Putin declared martial law on Wednesday – said about 50,000-60,000 people would be moved out in the next six days.
“The Ukrainian side is building up forces for a large-scale offensive,” Vladimir Saldo, the official, told state TV. “Where the military operates, there is no place for civilians.”
Kherson is arguably the most strategically important of the annexed regions. It controls both the only land route to the Crimea peninsula Russia seized in 2014, and the mouth of the Dnipro, the 2,200-kilometre-long (1,367-mile) river that bisects Ukraine.
Staff at Kherson’s Russian-backed administration were also being relocated to the eastern side of the Dnipro, Saldo said, although he said Russia had the resources to hold the city and even counter-attack if necessary. Russian forces near Kherson have been driven back by 20-30 km (13-20 miles) in the last few weeks.
Eight months after being invaded, Ukraine is pressing major counter-offensives in the east and south to try to take as much territory as it can before winter.
Russia has intensified its missile and drone attacks on Ukraine’s power and water infrastructure this week in what Ukraine and the West call a campaign to intimidate civilians ahead of the cold winter.
On Thursday, electricity supply will be restricted nationwide between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., government officials and the grid operator Ukrenergo said. Street lighting in cities will be limited, a presidential aide said on the Telegram messaging app, adding that if electricity use was not minimised, there would be temporary blackouts.
While limited to Thursday, “we do not exclude that with the onset of a cold weather we will be asking for your help even more frequently,” Ukrenergo said.
Russia has destroyed three Ukrainian energy facilities over the last 24 hours, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his Wednesday night video address.
A Russian missile strike hit a major thermal power station in the city of Burshtyn in western Ukraine on Wednesday, the region’s governor said.
Zelenskiy, who has said a third of his country’s power stations have been hit by Russian strikes, discussed security at power supply plants with senior officials.
“We are working to create mobile power points for the critical infrastructure of cities, towns and villages,” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram.
“We are preparing for various scenarios,” Zelenskiy said.
In televised remarks to his Security Council, Putin boosted the powers of Russia’s regional governors and ordered the creation of a coordinating council under Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to support his “special military operation”.
He said the “entire system of state administration” must be geared to back up the Ukraine effort.
It was unclear what the immediate impact of Putin’s declaration of martial law would be, beyond much tighter security measures in Kherson and the other three regions.
But Ukraine, which along with the West does not recognise Moscow’s self-styled annexations, derided the move. Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak called it “a pseudo-legalisation of (the) looting of Ukrainians’ property.”
“This does not change anything for Ukraine: we continue the liberation and deoccupation of our territories,” he tweeted.
U.S. President Joe Biden said Putin had found himself in a difficult position and his only tool was to brutalize Ukrainian civilians. The U.S. State Department said it was no surprise that Russia was resorting to “desperate tactics”.
Ukrainian and Russian forces exchanged intermittent artillery fire on a section of the Kherson front in the Mykolaiv region on Wednesday, the impacts marked by towers of smoke.
Several Ukrainian soldiers said they were aware of the martial law declaration but were not worried, although they warned a visiting Reuters reporter of the danger presented by Russian drones.
“For sure he’s (Putin) up to no good. We understand that,” said Yaroslav, who declined to give his last name. “But whatever they are doing, we will screw them anyway.”
Oleh, who also withheld his last name, said Russia in the past had warned about what it claimed would be escalatory Ukrainian actions only to carry them out itself.
“We are just concerned about our people in the Kherson region,” he said.
Moscow denies deliberately targeting civilians, though the conflict has killed thousands, displaced millions and pulverised Ukrainian cities.
The Kremlin placed a nuclear umbrella over the regions it says it has annexed, among nuclear threats which Britain’s chief of defence staff Tony Radakin said signalled desperation.
“It is a sign of weakness, which is precisely why the international community needs to remain strong and united,” Radakin said during a speech.
British Defence Minister Ben Wallace met his U.S counterpart in Washington this week to discuss shared security concerns about the situation in Ukraine, a senior defence source said in response to speculation around the sudden trip.
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