Kyiv, Ukraine: Russian forces fired dozens of missiles at Ukraine on Thursday in a blistering wave of strikes targeting energy infrastructure, a day after Germany and the United States pledged heavy tanks for Kyiv.
The latest wave of attacks came as the Kremlin said Moscow perceived the tank deliveries “as direct involvement in the conflict” and Ukraine conceded it was facing mounting pressure from Russian troops on the eastern front.
On a road near the eastern frontline city of Bakhmut, a team of medics welcomed the long-awaited promise of heavy tanks.
“This should have happened sooner, and in bigger quantities,” a doctor called Liza told AFP, adding that she was “very thankful.”
On Wednesday, the United States announced it will provide 31 Abrams tanks to help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, mirroring a similar move by Germany.
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said on Thursday that Leopard tanks pledged by Berlin will arrive in “late March, early April.”
Training of Ukrainian troops on German Marder infantry fighting vehicles will start in the next few days, he added, and “a little later” for the Ukrainian soldiers who will be trained on the Leopard.
In Kyiv, the Ukrainian army said its forces had destroyed 47 out of the 55 missiles launched by Russia in a new wave of attacks on Thursday.
Russian missiles killed one person and wounded two more in the capital, said Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko.
The 55-year-old man was killed by fragments of a missile that was shot down by Ukrainian air defence systems, city officials said.
– Emergency shutdowns –
Since October, Russia has been launching regular mass strikes against energy infrastructure across Ukraine, with temperatures currently near zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).
Energy Minister German Galushchenko accused Russia of seeking to “create a systemic failure in Ukraine’s energy system.”
“Emergency shutdowns have been introduced. The most difficult situation is currently in the regions of Kyiv, Odessa and Vinnytsia,” Galushchenko added after the latest strikes.
In the southern region of Odessa on the Black Sea, “such a situation may last for several days until the damaged power facilities are restored,” energy provider DTEK said.
The attacks delayed the visit of French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, who arrived in Odessa to discuss aid with Ukraine’s top diplomat Dmytro Kuleba.
Ukraine’s air force also said Thursday its units shot down all 24 Iranian-made drones launched by Russian forces from near southern Ukraine.
By announcing heavy tank deliveries, the United States and Germany swept aside long-standing misgivings and signalled a new surge of Western support for a counteroffensive against the Russian invasion.
– ‘Intensifying’ Donetsk front –
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave the green light to Germany sending 14 Leopard 2 tanks — a decision that opens the floodgates to several other European countries armed with Leopards to send their own contributions.
Although Western countries have already sent Ukraine everything from artillery to Patriot anti-missile defence systems, tanks were long considered a step too far, risking a widening backlash from Russia.
But with Ukraine gearing up for a counteroffensive to push back increasingly entrenched Russians in the east and south, the allies are now scrambling to send the powerful weapon.
After a series of battlefield setbacks, Russia has claimed gains on the eastern front, where Ukraine conceded that its troops had pulled out of the town of Soledar in the Donetsk region.
Russian forces and units with the Wagner mercenary group claimed two weeks ago they had captured the small salt-mining town.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said Moscow was also intensifying pressure along the eastern front, in the fight for nearby Bakhmut.
“The enemy is throwing a significant number of personnel, weapons and military equipment into the battle, trying to break through our defences,” Malyar said.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War said Russia was engaging in “spoiling attacks across most of the frontline in Ukraine in order to disperse and distract Ukrainian forces.”
Those measures, it said, were in order to “set conditions to launch a decisive offensive operation” in the eastern Lugansk region.