Russia again unleashed missiles on Thursday against Ukrainian energy facilities, while its forces stepped up attacks in eastern Ukraine, reinforced by troops pulled from Kherson city in the south which Kyiv recaptured last week.
NATO and Poland concluded that a missile that crashed in Poland on Tuesday, killing two people, was probably a stray fired by Ukraine’s air defences and not Russian. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy contested this view in a rare public disagreement with his Western allies.
As the winter’s first snow fell in Kyiv, authorities said they were working hard to restore power nationwide after Russia earlier this week unleashed what Ukraine said was the heaviest bombardment of civilian infrastructure of the nine-month war.
Explosions resounded in cities including the southern port of Odesa, the capital Kyiv, the central city of Dnipro and the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhia, where officials said two people were killed.
“Missiles are flying over Kyiv right now,” Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal as saying.
Zelenskiy posted video footage, apparently shot from a car cam, showing a driver’s journey through Dnipro being interrupted by a huge blast ahead that sent flames and black smoke pouring into the sky.
“No matter what the terrorists want, no matter what they try to achieve, we must get through this winter and be even stronger in the spring than we are now, even more ready for the liberation of our entire territory than we are now,” he said.
At least 15 people were wounded in Dnipro, three were hurt in the northeastern city of Kharkiv and at least one was injured in Odesa, local officials said.
State energy company Naftogaz said gas production facilities in eastern Ukraine had been damaged or destroyed. Other sites struck included the huge Pivdenmash defence plant in Dnipro.
The United Nations’ humanitarian office (OCHA) warned of a serious humanitarian crisis in Ukraine this winter.
“Millions are facing constant power cuts, and the lack of energy is also affecting water pumping,” it said in a statement.
On a happier note, a deal aimed at easing global food shortages by facilitating Ukraine’s agricultural exports from its southern Black Sea ports was extended for 120 days, though Moscow said its own demands were yet to be fully addressed.
President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which helped forge the Black Sea grain deal, said he had been informed after U.S.-Russia talks in Ankara earlier this week aimed at reducing tensions over Ukraine that neither party would use nuclear weapons, according to a readout of his comments to reporters.
The Kremlin later said that no Russian officials were considering the use of nuclear weapons. It also accused Kyiv of moving the goalposts regarding possible peace talks and called on Washington to push Ukraine towards diplomacy.
NATO ambassadors held emergency talks on Wednesday to respond to Tuesday’s blast at a grain facility in Poland, near the Ukrainian border, the war’s first deadly extension into the territory of the Western alliance.
However, Polish President Andrzej Duda said the missile appeared to be a Soviet-made S-300 rocket most likely fired accidentally “by Ukrainian anti-aircraft defence”, not by Russia. Russia and Ukraine both use the missile.
NATO’s chief said Russia, not Ukraine, was still to blame for starting the war with its February invasion and launching scores of missiles on Tuesday that triggered Ukrainian defences.
“This is not Ukraine’s fault. Russia bears ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
Nevertheless, Zelenskiy said “I have no doubt that it was not our missile”, based on reports from Ukraine’s military which the president said he “cannot but trust”. An adviser to the Polish president said Ukraine was likely to get access to the site of the blast that it has requested.
U.S. President Joe Biden disputed Zelenskiy’s assertion that the missile was not Ukrainian, telling reporters at the White House on Thursday: “That’s not the evidence.”
Moscow had denied responsibility. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the “mayhem” around accusations of Russian involvement in the blast were “part of a systematic anti-Russian campaign by the West”.
Officials reported heavy fighting in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which Russia claims to have annexed along with the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in September after holding what it calls “referendums” there condemned as illegal by Kyiv and the West.
“In the direction of Svatove and Kreminna (in Luhansk region), the Ukrainian military has managed to push the enemy back a bit. Local residents say they can hear battles going on nearby,” regional governor Serhiy Gaidar said in a TV broadcast.
Moscow’s forces retreated from the southern city of Kherson last week after a Ukrainian counteroffensive. It was the only regional capital Russia had captured since its Feb. 24 invasion, and the pullback was the third major Russian retreat of the war.
Investigators in the Kherson region uncovered 63 bodies bearing signs of torture after Russian forces left the area, Ukraine’s interior minister was quoted as saying on Thursday.
Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted the minister, Denys Monastyrsky, as telling national television: “The search has only just started, so many more dungeons and burial places will be uncovered.”
Russia denies its troops target civilians or have committed atrocities. Mass burial sites have been found in other parts previously occupied by Russian troops, including some with civilian bodies showing signs of torture.
Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed official in the Russian-controlled part of Zaporizhzhia, said a Ukrainian missile struck a village there, killing two people and wounding nine.
The top U.S. general, Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played down chances of any outright military victory for Kyiv in the near term, saying Russia still had significant combat power in Ukraine despite setbacks.