KYIV — Russia hit key infrastructure in and around Kyiv in a “kamikaze” drone attack on Monday, hours before President Vladimir Putin arrived in Belarus, fueling fears he will pressure his ally to join a new offensive on Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Air Force said its air defenses shot down 30 drones in what was the third Russian air strike on the Ukrainian capital in six days and the latest in a series of assaults since October targeting the Ukrainian energy grid, causing sweeping blackouts amid sub-zero temperatures.
Officials said at least three people were injured and nine buildings damaged in the Kyiv region.
The Ukrainian atomic energy agency accused Russia of sending one of the drones over part of the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant in the Mykolaiv region.
“This is an absolutely unacceptable violation of nuclear and radiation safety,” Energoatom wrote on Telegram.
Invading Russian forces now occupy the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor complex, Europe’s largest, in southeastern Ukraine near the front line.
The “kamikaze” drones used in the attacks are cheaply produced, disposable unmanned aircraft that fly towards their target before plummeting at speed and detonating on impact.
A Reuters witness said that during the night a fire raged at an energy facility in the often-targeted Shevchenkivskyi district of central Kyiv.
“I heard an explosion. And in three or four minutes I heard another explosion,” said an old man who works as a guard at a nearby hospital.
The Solomianskyi district in the western part of Kyiv, a busy transport hub and home to a train station and one of the city’s two passenger airports, was also hit.
Kyiv officials said 18 out of 23 drones were shot down over the city of 3.6 million people.
“As a result of the attack on the capital, critical infrastructure facilities were damaged,” Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging app. “Engineers are working to quickly stabilize the situation with energy and heat supply.”
Oleskiy Kuleba, governor of the region surrounding Kyiv, said infrastructure and private homes were damaged and three areas had been left without power.
To the northwest of Ukraine, there has been constant Russian and Belarusian military activity for months in Belarus, a close Kremlin ally that Moscow’s troops used as a launch pad for their abortive attack on Kyiv in February.
Putin’s trip, for talks with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, was his first to Minsk since 2019 – before the pandemic and a wave of Belarusian street protests in 2020 that Lukashenko crushed with support from the Kremlin.
“During (these talks) questions will be worked out for further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground,” Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev said before Putin’s arrival.
Lukashenko has said repeatedly he has no intention of sending his country’s troops into Ukraine, where Moscow’s invasion has faltered badly of late with a string of battlefield retreats in the face of a major Ukrainian counter-offensive.
The Kremlin dismissed the suggestion that Putin wanted to push Belarus into a more active role in the conflict. The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying such reports were “groundless” and “stupid.”
Russian troops that moved to Belarus in October will conduct battalion tactical exercises, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, citing the defense ministry. It was not immediately clear when they would start.
The 10-month-old conflict in Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War Two, has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to ruins.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the armed forces were holding firm in the town of Bakhmut – scene of the fiercest fighting for many weeks as Russia attempts to advance in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province.
“We control the town even though the occupiers are doing everything so that no undamaged wall will remain standing,” he said.
On Monday, Zelenskiy appealed to Western leaders meeting in Latvia to supply a wide range of weapons systems especially modern battle tanks, air defense systems and artillery.
Zelenskiy said in his address by videolink that the drones used in Monday’s strikes were part of a new batch of around 250 acquired by Russia from Iran. Iran has acknowledged supplying Moscow with drones but said this was before the invasion.
Denis Pushilin, Russian-installed administrator of the part of the Donetsk region controlled by Moscow, said Ukrainian forces shelled a hospital in Donetsk city, killing one person and injuring several others.
Russia’s defense ministry said that over the past 24 hours its forces had shot down four U.S.-made HARM anti-radiation missiles over the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine, state-run TASS news agency reported.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts.
Putin casts what he calls Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as the moment when Moscow finally stood up to the U.S.-led Western bloc seeking to capitalize on the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union by destroying Russia.
Kyiv and the West say his assertion is nonsense and that Putin has no justification for what they see as an imperial-style war to reassert dominance over Russia’s fellow ex-Soviet republic and put Moscow in control of around a fifth of Ukraine.
The conflict has sent energy prices soaring after Western sanctions imposed on Russia, a huge oil and gas exporter, spurred Moscow to cut off most gas deliveries to Europe in retaliation.
On Monday, European Union energy ministers agreed a gas price cap in their latest attempt to reduce prices.
The Kremlin’s Peskov condemned the decision, calling it an attack on market pricing and unacceptable, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
(Writing by Lincoln Feast, Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich; editing by Shri Navaratnam, Tomasz Janowski and Hugh Lawson)