Ukrainians suffer in cold, darkness as president pleads with UN to punish Russia

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By Pavel Polityuk and Tom Balmforth

KYIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy demanded the United Nations punish Russian airstrikes on civilian infrastructure after a missile barrage caused the worst nationwide blackouts to date, plunging cities into freezing darkness.

As millions of Ukrainians endured sub-zero temperatures at home, authorities on Thursday worked hard to get the lights and heat back on. Russia’s latest missile barrage killed 10 people, shut down Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and knocked out most of the power nationwide.

By Thursday morning, Kyiv regional authorities said power had been restored to three-quarters of the capital and water was back on in some areas. Transport was back in motion in the capital, with buses replacing electric trams.

Authorities hoped to restart the three nuclear power plants in Ukrainian-controlled territory by the end of the day.

Since early October, Russia has launched massive barrages of airstrikes about once a week against energy targets across Ukraine, each time launching hundreds of millions of dollars worth of missiles to knock out Ukraine’s power grid.

Moscow acknowledges attacking basic infrastructure and says the aim is to reduce Ukraine’s ability to fight and pressure it to negotiate. Kyiv says such attacks are clearly aimed at harming civilians, making them a war crime.

“Today is just one day, but we have received 70 missiles. This is the Russian formula for terror. It is all against our energy infrastructure,” Zelenskiy said overnight via video link to the UN Security Council chamber.

“Hospitals, schools, transport, residential areas all suffered,” he said, calling on the UN to act to stop the attacks.

There was no prospect of action by the Security Council, where Russia has a veto. Moscow’s UN ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, said it was against council rules for Zelenskiy to appear via video, rejecting what he called “reckless threats and ultimatums” from Ukraine and its supporters in the West.

In an overnight address to Ukrainians, Zelenskiy said: “We will renew everything and get through all this because we are an unbreakable people.”

Ukraine says it shoots down most of the missiles and restores most power within a day, but that each such attack causes worse damage and greater distress to civilians.

“If Moscow really believes that the blackout will cause Ukrainians to overthrow the government and beg for mercy, then after nine months of war the Kremlin still knows nothing about Ukraine,” tweeted Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.

“Each new attack only strengthens our character.”

WEAPON WINTER

Winter has suddenly arrived in Ukraine, and temperatures were well below freezing in the capital, a city of three million. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Russian President Vladimir Putin “clearly weaponized the winter to inflict enormous suffering on the Ukrainian people”.

The Russian president “will try to freeze the country into submission,” she added.

Russian Ambassador Nebenzya said damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure was caused by missiles fired by Ukrainian air defense systems that crashed in civilian areas, and called on the West to stop supplying Kiev with air defense missiles.

Ukrainian authorities said three apartment blocks were hit on Wednesday, killing ten people.

“Our little one slept. Two years old. She slept, she was covered. She’s alive, thank God,” said a man who gave his name as Fyodr, dragging a suitcase as he walked away from a smoldering apartment building hit in Kiev.

The blackouts also spread to neighboring Moldova, where authorities said most power was back on Thursday.

Ukraine has inflicted a series of crushing defeats on Russian forces since September, retaking parts of the east and south. Moscow has responded by declaring the annexation of the country it occupies and calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists.

The first winter of the war will test Ukraine’s campaign to reclaim territory and show whether Russia’s commanders can find a way to halt Kyiv’s momentum.

Moscow faces the difficult task of keeping an invasion force supplied for its first long winter in Ukraine. But having retreated, Russia now has a far shorter line to defend to hold on to its remaining seized lands, with more than a third of the front now blocked by the Dnipro River.

“Ukraine will slowly grow in capabilities, but a continued maneuver east of the Dnipro River and into Russian-held Donbas will prove to be much tougher fighting,” tweeted Mark Hertling, a former commander of US ground forces in Europe.

“Ukrainian morale will be tested with continued Russian attacks against civilian infrastructure … but Ukraine will persevere.”

Russia has been pressing its own offensive along a front line west of the city of Donetsk, held by Moscow’s proxies since 2014. Ukraine says it has killed thousands of Russian soldiers there while making no ground, describing the Russians as thrown into battle with little equipment or training.

Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces were again trying to advance on their main targets in the Donetsk region – Bakhmut and Avdiivka. Russian forces shelled both areas and used incendiary devices to set Ukrainian positions on fire with only limited success, the General Staff said.

Further south, Russian forces dug into the eastern bank of the Dnipro and shelled areas across it, including the city of Kherson, which was recaptured by Ukrainian forces this month.

Reuters could not immediately verify the battleground’s accounts.

Moscow says it is conducting a “special military operation” to protect Russian speakers in what Putin calls an artificial state carved out of Russia. Ukraine and the West call the invasion an unprovoked land grab.

Western responses have included billions of dollars in economic aid and advanced military equipment to Kiev and waves of punitive sanctions against Russia.

(Reporting by Reuters BureauxWriting by Peter GraffEditing by Philippa Fletcher)

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