Ukraine reclaims swathes of territory as Russia retreats, attacks infrastructure

Zelensky says Russian troops targeting power plants, cutting power and heat to millions, as Ukrainian forces claim to recapture dozens of towns

Ukrainian firefighters put out a fire after a Russian rocket attack hit an electric power station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, September 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov)
Ukrainian firefighters put out a fire after a Russian rocket attack hit an electric power station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, September 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Kostiantyn Liberov)

Ukraine on Sunday accused Russia of causing massive power outages in the east of the country, as Kyiv announced fresh gains in its counteroffensive, including the recapture of the key city of Izyum.

Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency had already said the final reactor at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station and a focal point of the conflict, had been shut off as a safety measure.

Later Sunday, large areas of eastern Ukraine were plunged into power cuts, which Ukrainian officials blamed on Russia.

The electricity cuts hit regions with an estimated combined population of nine million people — including in territory controlled by Russia.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of having deliberately hit civilian infrastructure.

“A total blackout in the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, a partial one in the Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk and Sumy regions,” Zelensky said. “Russian terrorists remain terrorists and attack critical infrastructure. No military facilities, only the goal of leaving people without light and heat.”

Police officers carry a bag containing the body of a person killed in his house during a Russian attack in the Pokrovsk region of Ukraine, September 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Ukrainian officials said Russia hit Kharkiv TEC-5, the country’s second biggest heat and power plant.

Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov called the power outage “revenge by the Russian aggressor for the successes of our army at the front, in particular, in the Kharkiv region.”

Zelensky mocked the Russian military, saying, “the Russian army in these days is demonstrating the best that it can do — showing its back.”

The Russian attacks were also disrupting railway services, with the national train service announcing delays throughout the east including the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv.

Some districts reported that power had later been restored

The blackouts came as Ukrainian forces claimed to have recaptured dozens of towns and villages in eastern Ukraine as the war marked its 200th day on Sunday.

Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, July 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

The speed of Ukraine’s fightback against Russia’s invasion has apparently caught Moscow’s military off-guard, bringing swathes of territory Moscow had controlled for months back into Kyiv’s fold.

The Russian pullback marked the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian forces since they thwarted a Russian attempt to seize Kyiv near the start of the war.

Images posted by the Ukrainian military showed crates of munitions and military hardware scattered across territory abandoned by the Russian forces.

In his evening address Sunday, Zelensky praised the soldiers who had “liberated hundreds of our cities and villages… and most recently Balakliya, Izyum and Kupiansk,” naming three important hubs recently captured by Kyiv’s army.

Around Balakliya, one of the first towns to be recaptured by Ukrainian troops, AFP journalists saw evidence of fierce battles, with buildings destroyed or damaged and streets mainly deserted.

Ukrainian soldiers pose with a flag after retaking the town of Kupiansk near Kharkiv from Russian force, September 10, 2022. (Social media; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Earlier Sunday, the head of the Ukrainian military announced that as much as 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles) had been wrested from Russia since the offensive began at the beginning of this month.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, used the momentum to appeal to Western allies for more stockpiles of sophisticated weapons.

“Weapons, weapons, weapons have been on our agenda since spring. I am grateful to partners who have answered our call: Ukraine’s battlefield successes are our shared ones,” Kuleba said.

“Prompt supplies bring victory and peace closer,” his statement on social media said.

The reaction in Moscow to the Ukrainian gains so far has been muted, but on Sunday a military map presented by the Russian defense ministry showed that its forces had made a major withdrawal from the Kharkiv region.

Russia controlled just a sliver of territory in the region’s east, behind the Oskil river, the revised map showed.

A Ukrainian soldier fires on the front line in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, September 3, 2022. (Kostiantyn Liberov/AP)

The Russian military made the surprise announcement Saturday that it was “regrouping” its forces from Kharkiv to the Donetsk region just south to focus its military efforts there. That came shortly after Moscow said it was actually sending reinforcements towards Kharkiv.

The retreat angered Russian military bloggers and nationalist commentators, who bemoaned it as a major defeat and urged the Kremlin to step up its war efforts. Many criticized Russian authorities for continuing with fireworks and other lavish festivities in Moscow that marked a city holiday on Saturday despite the debacle in Ukraine.

The fresh fighting in and around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has sharpened fears of another nuclear incident comparable to the Chernobyl disaster in northern Ukraine in 1986.

The plant, one of the 10 biggest atomic power stations in the world, has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war.

Putin, in a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, once again accused Ukraine of repeated attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant held by Russian troops.

A Russian military convoy is seen on the road toward the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, in Enerhodar, Zaporizhzhia region, in territory under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine, on May 1, 2022. (AP Photo)

The Russian leader drew attention to “regular Ukrainian attacks” which could have catastrophic consequences,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

Each side has repeatedly blamed the other for shelling in the area.

Macron’s office, in its readout of the conversation, said the French president had told Putin that “the Russian occupation was the reason for the risks” facing the plant.

Ukraine’s state nuclear agency, Energoatom, said Sunday that the sixth and final reactor at the plant had been shut off.

Energoatom said the sixth reactor had been generating energy for the plant itself for three days and that the decision to halt its operations came when external power had been restored to the facility. It cautioned again, however, that in its view the only way to ensure the safety of the facility would be to create a demilitarized zone around it.

In Balakliya, one of the towns recently recaptured by Ukrainian troops, 52-year-old Iryna Stepanenko was outside cycling for the first time in months.

She had hidden in her basement for three months, she said. The town was home to some 27,000 people before the invasion.

But while she was relieved that Kyiv’s forces were back, she was still worried about the future.

“I’m worried the Russians could return. I’m worried the shelling could start again,” she said.

Despite the reported Ukrainian gains, Russian forces have continued bombardments across the frontline, and in the Donetsk region, officials said shelling killed 10 people and wounded another 19.

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