NATO says Russia using winter as a weapon in Ukraine war

Ukraine has prepared for more Russian attacks against energy and other critical infrastructure on Monday in what appears to be a weekly pattern, and warned of possible evacuations from the capital.

Estonia’s foreign minister joined counterparts from six Baltic and Nordic nations — in the largest delegation to visit Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale war — to pledge electric generators, warm clothes and food. The goal is to help Ukrainians cope with their coldest months of need and keep their resolve high.

“Russia is weaponising civilian energy security, and it is truly shameful,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said in Kyiv.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned late Sunday that Russian troops “are preparing new strikes, and as long as they have missiles, they won’t stop.” He met Monday with senior government officials to discuss what actions to take.

“The upcoming week can be as hard as the one that passed,” he predicted.

Russia has been carrying out massive missile bombardments on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure roughly weekly since early October, with each barrage having a greater effect than the last as damage accumulates and a frigid winter sets in.

Kyiv says the attacks, which Russia acknowledges target Ukrainian infrastructure, are intended to harm civilians, making them a war crime. Moscow denies its intent is to hurt civilians but said last week their suffering would not end unless Ukraine yielded to Russia’s demands, without spelling them out.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted Russian President Vladimir Putin was intent on using frost, snow and ice to his advantage, not just on the battleground but against Ukrainian civilians.

“President Putin is now trying to use the winter as a weapon of war against Ukraine, and this is horrific and we need to be prepared for more attacks,” he said on the eve of a two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Bucharest, Romania. “That’s the reason why NATO’s allies have stepped up their support to Ukraine.”

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said some of the city’s 3 million people might have to be evacuated to where essential services would be less prone to shutdowns caused by missile attacks.

For weeks, Russia has been pounding energy facilities around Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities with missile raids, usually on Mondays at the work week’s beginning, resulting in outages of power and water supplies.

With temperatures hovering around freezing, and expected to dip as low as -11C (12F) in little more than a week, international help was increasingly focused on items like generators and transformers to make sure blackouts that affect everything from kitchens to operating rooms are as limited and short as possible.

The power situation was so dire that Ukraine’s energy trader — in normal times an exporter — tested importing electricity from neighbouring Romania.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “continues trying to make Ukraine a black hole — no light, no electricity, no heating to put the Ukrainians into the darkness and the cold,” said European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is leading a meeting of European Union ministers in Bucharest, Romania, to help Ukraine with its humanitarian crisis.

“So we have to continue our support providing more material for the Ukrainians to face the winter without electricity.”

National grid operator Ukrenergo said on Monday it had been forced to resume regular emergency blackouts in areas across the country after a setback in its race to repair energy infrastructure.

Units at several power stations had to conduct emergency shutdowns and demand for electricity has been rising as snowy winter weather has set in, a Ukrenergo statement said.

“Once the causes of the emergency shutdowns are eliminated, the units will return to operation, which will reduce the deficit in the power system and reduce the amount of restrictions for consumers,” it said.

Along the front lines in the east of Ukraine, the looming winter is ushering in a new phase of the conflict, after several months of Russian retreats, with intense trench warfare along heavily fortified positions.

With Russian forces having pulled back in the northeast and withdrawn across the Dnipro River in the south, the front line on land is only about half the length it was a few months ago, making it harder for Ukrainian forces to pinpoint weakly defended stretches to attempt a new breakthrough.

Zelenskyy described heavy fighting west of the Russian-held eastern city of Donetsk, where Moscow has focused its assault even as it has withdrawn troops elsewhere. Both sides claim huge casualties with little change in positions.

In its evening update on Monday, Ukraine’s armed forces General Staff said Russia kept up heavy shelling of key targets Bakhmut and Avdiivka in Donetsk province, and to the north, bombarded areas around the towns of Kupiansk and Lyman, both recaptured recently by Kyiv.

On the southern front, it said, Russian forces had reinforced positions in occupied territory and were heavily shelling towns on the west bank of the Dnipro River, including Kherson, abandoned by Moscow earlier this month.

It said Ukrainian forces had damaged a rail bridge north of the Russian-occupied southern city of Melitopol that has been key to supplying Russian troops dug in there.

The Kremlin denied Russia had any plans to withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which it has controlled since early in the war near the front line on a reservoir on the Dnipro river.

The head of Ukraine’s nuclear power operator, Petro Kotkin, had said on Sunday there were signs Russia might pull out. But Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded on Monday: “There’s no need to look for signs where there are none and cannot be any.”

Russia says it has annexed the area and put the plant under the control of its nuclear power agency.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, has called for the plant and surrounding area to be demilitarised to prevent a nuclear disaster.

In Kherson, which has lacked electricity and heat since Russian forces abandoned it earlier this month, regional governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said 17 percent of customers now had electricity and other districts would be hooked up soon.

Russian forces who withdrew have been bombarding from across the river, killing dozens of civilians, Ukrainian officials say.

Liliia Khrystenko, 38, recounted to the Reuters news agency how her parents were both killed last Thursday when their building was hit while she was inside with her young son.

“I heard my father screaming, telling me to call an ambulance, because my mother was wounded. But I couldn’t call an ambulance, because the (mobile) connection was gone,” she said through tears outside the building.

“I went outside with my child, and my mother was lying in the building entrance, face down, covered in blood. And my father was sitting by her side, saying he was going to die.”

Khrystenko’s mother’s body lay on the street for a day before being removed. Her father had been hit in the liver by shrapnel, and medics were unable to revive him in the hospital.

On the diplomatic front, efforts to weaken Russia’s ability to fund its war in Ukraine faltered on Monday when envoys of EU governments failed to agree on a price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil, diplomats said.

Poland, they said, had insisted the cap be set lower than others wanted. “There is no deal. The legal texts have now been agreed but Poland still can’t agree to the price,” one said.

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