By Olena Harmash
KIEV (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Russian missiles struck power plants across Ukraine on Friday as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy returned from a tour of western capitals and Ukrainian officials said a long-awaited Russian offensive was underway in the east.
The Ukrainian military said in an evening update that Russian forces fired more than 100 missiles across the country and staged 12 airstrikes and 20 bombing raids. The Facebook post claims 61 cruise missiles were destroyed.
Energy Minister German Galushchenko said Russia struck power plants in six regions with missiles and drones, causing blackouts across large parts of Ukraine.
In Washington, the White House said President Joe Biden would travel to Poland February 20-22 to show support for Kiev ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion on February 24 and make it clear that further assistance and security aid they will come from the United States.
“The president will make it very clear that the United States will continue to be with Ukraine for as long as necessary,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
International Monetary Fund staff will meet with Ukrainian officials in Warsaw next week, a source familiar with the plans said on Friday, as Ukraine presses for a multibillion-dollar loan program to cover its financing needs due to war in Russia .
Global rating agency Moody’s on Friday downgraded Ukraine’s sovereign credit rating to Ca as it expects war with Russia to create long-lasting challenges for the country. Moody’s website says the rating indicates debt obligations are “probably in default or very close.”
The latest Russian attacks came as Zelenskiy concluded a tour of European allies where he was greeted enthusiastically but got no public pledges of the fighters he sought.
“London, Paris, Brussels – everywhere I have been talking in recent days about how to strengthen our soldiers. There are very important agreements and we have received good signals,” he said in his nightly video address.
“This concerns long-range missiles and tanks and the next level of our cooperation: fighter planes.”
Russia has repeatedly attacked civilian infrastructure far from the front lines, leaving millions of Ukrainians without electricity, heat or water for days in the dead of winter.
The barrages often followed Ukrainian diplomatic or battlefield advances.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said 10 Russian missiles were shot down over the capital after sirens sounded during the morning rush hour and weary civilians took refuge.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that Ukraine lacks 44% of nuclear production and 75% of thermal energy capacity.
“This is a deliberate goal of the infrastructure that keeps Ukrainians alive in winter,” said US State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel. Russia denies targeting civilians and says it has targeted Kiev’s war effort.
Ukraine has been bracing for a new Russian offensive, believing that after months of reverses President Vladimir Putin wants to promote a battlefield success ahead of the anniversary of his February 24 invasion. Ukrainian governors in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions said the push had begun.
Putin will hold his annual postponed speech to parliament on Feb. 21, the date last year when he recognized as independent parts of Donetsk and Luhansk that were controlled by Russian-backed separatists, a prelude to the invasion.
The complete capture of those provinces, among the four that Russia has subsequently claimed to have annexed, would make Putin claim that one of his top priorities has been achieved.
Moscow’s main recent target has been Bakhmut, a small town from which most of the pre-war population of some 70,000 people fled, and the Ukrainian military said it and the surrounding areas were coming under fresh tank fire, mortars and artillery.
After months of static artillery battles both sides call the “meat grinder”, Russian forces have begun encircling the city. Among their troops is Wagner’s private army which has recruited tens of thousands of convicted prisoners on the promise of pardons.
Even Russia’s regular army is now able to field many of the 300,000 or more men it enlisted in a forced mobilization late last year.
The British Defense Ministry said Wagner’s forces appear to have advanced 2 to 3 kilometers (1 to 2 miles) around north of Bakhmut since Tuesday, a swift push in a battle where front lines have shifted barely for months.
He said they were now threatening the main western access road to Bakhmut, although a Ukrainian military analyst said supplies were still arriving.
Britain also said Russian forces made some progress near Vuhledar, a Ukrainian-held bastion that has been a hub between the Southern and Eastern Fronts, but the limited Russian gains likely came at a high price, including at least 30 abandoned armored vehicles. in a failed assault.
Ukrainian positions in Vuhledar have held since the start of the war and this week’s assault has been labeled a costly fiasco by some pro-war Russian military bloggers. Gray Zone, a semi-official Wagner channel on Telegram, said that “a disaster is unfolding around Vuhledar, and it’s unfolding again and again.”
RockedBuzz via Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
Ukraine plans its major military counteroffensive in the coming months to reclaim more than nearly a fifth of the Ukrainian territory that Russia occupies.
But it seems likely that it will wait until it has received at least some of the new weapons, including hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers, recently promised by the West.
(Reporting by the RockedBuzz via Reuters officesWriting by Michael Perry, Kevin Liffey, Andrew Cawthorne and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Peter Graff, Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman)