Russian president Vladimir Putin has rejected western criticism of his military’s missile strikes on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, where engineers struggled to repair severe damage to the electricity grid due to increasingly harsh winter weather.
Pope Francis broke down in tears during public prayers for Ukraine on Thursday, as heavy fighting continued in the eastern Donbas area and Kyiv said it was still pushing for the creation of an internationally monitored “safety zone” at a Russian-held nuclear power station in partly occupied Zaporizhzhia region.
“Due to damage caused by missile strikes to power plants and the high-voltage network, the system has a significant electricity deficit,” state power provider Ukrenergo said, three days after the latest major Russian rocket attack on Ukraine’s national grid.
“The situation is complicated by the weather conditions: in many regions in the west of the country, frost, sleet and strong gusting wind are icing and damaging power lines. The hardest situation is still in the eastern region, where yesterday evening the enemy again hit several districts with massive artillery fire,” the company added.
Kyiv and western states say Russia’s intentional attacks on critical infrastructure constitute war crimes, but the Kremlin insists it is targeting energy installations that help Ukraine’s war effort.
“There is a lot of noise now about our strikes on energy infrastructure,” Mr Putin said after presenting Russian soldiers with medals. “Yes, we are doing it. But who started it? Who struck the Crimean bridge? Who blew up power lines linked to the Kursk nuclear power plant?”
Moscow has accused Ukraine of using drones to hit several targets on Russian territory – including two air bases this week – but Kyiv has not taken responsibility for any such strikes.
“We just make a slight move and there is lots of noise, chatter and outcry across the entire universe. It will not hinder us in completing our military tasks,” Mr Putin added.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour this year has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions, and on Thursday Pope Francis cried and struggled to speak when praying in central Rome.
“Immaculate Virgin, today I would have wanted to bring you the thanks of the Ukrainian people,” he said before breaking down in tears.
“Instead, once again I have to bring you the pleas of children, of the elderly, of fathers and mothers, of the young people of that martyred land, which is suffering so much,” he added when he was able to continue.
Kyiv accused Russian forces of moving a powerful multi-launch rocket system into the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant complex – the biggest in Europe – but said it was still hoping for a deal brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to demilitarise the facility.
“This is extremely difficult to achieve without stopping Russian missile strikes on the territory of Ukraine, but we are moving forward step-by-step in mutual understanding with the IAEA,” said Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Moscow says it will not give up control of a six-reactor site that it claims to be protecting from Ukrainian attack.