Rescue workers in southeastern Ukraine continued to evacuate people from areas flooded by the destruction of a big dam, as the Kremlin blamed Kyiv for a drone strike on the Russian city of Voronezh and said plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus next month were on schedule.
Ukrainian officials said five people had been found dead, at least 13 were missing and more than 2,400 had been evacuated from Kyiv-controlled areas of Kherson region, while reports from Russian-held parts of the province said eight people had been killed and almost 6,000 evacuated on the eastern bank of the Dnipro river.
“We are working at all levels of state and local authorities to rescue as many people as possible from the flooded areas,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday, a day after visiting the disaster zone.
“We are establishing more details about the damage Russia has caused by this disaster. In more than 40 settlements life is broken. For hundreds of thousands of people in many towns and villages access to drinking water has been greatly hampered. Russia must be held accountable for this deliberate crime against people, nature and life itself.”
Kyiv and Moscow accuse each other of blowing up the vast Kakhovka dam in the early hours of Tuesday, but experts say it would have been almost impossible to destroy the vast structure – which was controlled by the Russian military – with a strike from outside.
Norwegian seismic research agency Norsar said it detected a signal resembling an explosion at the dam at the time it was breached. Separately, Ukraine’s security service published what it called an intercepted conversation in which a Russian soldier says Moscow’s forces blew up the facility. The authenticity of the recording could not be verified.
Military analysts say Russia’s forces have more to gain from destruction of the dam because the flood waters prevent Ukraine’s military from advancing in the area, allowing Moscow to redeploy soldiers and armour to other parts of the front.
The warring neighbours also accuse each other of shelling areas where people are being evacuated, and reports have emerged from the eastern bank of the Dnipro of Russian troops commandeering boats from volunteer rescuers and of only evacuating civilians who have taken Russian passports from the occupation authorities.
Ukraine insists the disaster will not stop its counteroffensive, and its military reported more gains around the occupied city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region.
Moscow said its forces were thwarting Ukrainian attacks in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, where analysts think Kyiv’s troops may try to break through enemy lines and cut the land corridor linking the Russian border with occupied Crimea.
“An important thought about the [Ukrainian] counteroffensive ... on the Zaporizhzhia front: the enemy has not yet used its main reserves in our direction. It’s only beginning. We’re not waiting, but preparing,” said Vladimir Rogov, a collaborationist politician in the region.
Officials in the Russian city of Voronezh, some 220km from Ukraine, said three people were hurt when a drone hit an apartment block on Friday.
“The Kyiv regime continues its attacks on civilian infrastructure and residential buildings ... But we continue [our] battle and the ‘special military operation’,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, using Russia’s official term for an all-out invasion of Ukraine that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said his plan to place tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus were on schedule: “As you know on July 7th-8th the preparation of the relevant facilities will be complete, and we will immediately start measures related to deploying the ... weapons on your territory,” he told Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko.
Also on Friday, Mr Putin said Ukrainian troops have started a long-expected counter-offensive and are suffering “significant” losses. His comments formed his latest effort to shape the narrative of the invasion he ordered more than 15 months ago, sparking widespread international condemnation and reviving Cold War-style tensions.
Ukraine has played down talk of a counter-offensive, reasoning that the less said about its military moves the better.
Mr Zelenskiy said on Thursday he was in touch with Ukrainian forces “in all the hottest areas” and praised an unspecified “result” from their efforts.
Mr Putin said Russian forces have the upper hand, telling reporters in Sochi: “We can clearly say the offensive has started, as indicated by the Ukrainian army’s use of strategic reserves ... But the Ukrainian troops haven’t achieved their stated tasks in a single area of fighting.”
Kyiv has not specified whether reservists have been mobilised to the front, but western allies have poured firepower, defensive systems and other military assets and advice into Ukraine, raising the stakes for the counter-offensive.
“We are seeing that the Ukrainian regime’s troops are suffering significant losses,” Mr Putin said. “It’s known that the offensive side suffers losses of three to one – it’s sort of classic – but in this case, the losses significantly exceed that classic level.”
Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, said air defences had shot down two unspecified targets overnight.
An apartment building and private homes were damaged, he said, without saying by what. He also said a drone fell on the roof of an office building in the city of Belgorod. It failed to detonate but caught fire on impact, causing “insignificant damage”.
The leader of a third region of Russia, Kursk governor Roman Starovoit, said a drone had crashed to the ground outside an oil depot and near water reservoirs in the local capital, causing no casualties or damage. – Additional reporting AP