KYIV, Ukraine — Russian shellfire crashed into the power grid of the newly liberated Ukrainian city of Kherson, officials said Thursday, cutting electricity to desperate residents and illustrating the challenge confronting the entire country: Even as crews race to restore basic utilities, new attacks threaten to undo their work.
“The Ukrainian energy system is under constant Russian fire,” said Andriy Herus, head of a national energy and housing committee.
Moscow’s concerted assault on the plants and equipment Ukrainians rely on for heat and light as winter nears has drawn condemnation from world leaders, with some suggesting that it may be a war crime.
But on Thursday, as Ukrainian officials warned that Russia was preparing to launch yet another wave of missile strikes aimed at infrastructure, the Russian foreign minister insisted that the power grid was nothing less than a legitimate military target.
Hours after Ukrainian officials announced that six million people across the country were still without power because of the airstrikes, Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov claimed that Russia was using high-precision weapons against energy facilities that support combat operations and are used “to pump up Ukraine with Western weapons for it to kill Russians.”
The Ukrainian military has said that its forces have their own autonomous energy supply and that the strikes had no effect on their fighting capability.
And it is civilians who have borne the brunt of the Russian tactic of trying to turn the cold and the dark into weapons of war, though how effective it will be may depend on the severity of the looming winter.
Ukraine typically experiences frigid winters. Mean temperatures between December and March range from 23 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 5 Celsius), to 36 degrees Fahrenheit (2 Celsius), according to the World Bank Group, though it can get far colder.
On Thursday, when the daytime temperature in the capital, Kyiv, hovered around freezing, the city’s mayor suggested that residents consider a temporary evacuation.
“I appeal to the people of Kyiv who can — who have relatives, acquaintances in the suburbs, in private houses where you can live temporarily — to consider such options,” Mayor Vitali Klitschko said at a security forum.
The State of the War
- A Pivotal Point: Ukraine is on the offensive, but with about one-fifth of its territory still occupied by Russian forces, there is still a long way to go, and the onset of winter will bring new difficulties.
- Ukraine’s Electric Grid: As many Ukrainians head into winter without power or water, Western officials say that rebuilding Ukraine’s battered energy infrastructure needs to be considered a second front in the war.
- A Bloody Vortex : Even as they have celebrated successes elsewhere, Ukrainian forces in the small eastern city of Bakhmut have endured relentless Russian attacks. And the struggle to hold it is only intensifying.
- Dnipro River: A volunteer Ukrainian special forces team has been conducting secret raids under the cover of darkness, traveling across the strategic waterway that has become the dividing line of the southern front.
It was the latest sign that Ukrainian officials were growing increasingly worried as winter began to bite. They have appealed for help from the United States and Europe and are preparing centers where civilians can find warmth, light and internet access.
In a speech this week, President Volodymyr Zelensky attempted to rally the population. “We will pass this challenge of war, as well — this winter, this Russian attempt to use the cold against people,” he said.
On Thursday, British defense intelligence officials said the attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure appeared to be the first time Moscow had put into effect a military doctrine adopted in recent years known as the Strategic Operation for the Destruction of Critically Important Targets, or SODCIT.
“Russia envisioned SODCIT as using long-range missiles to strike an enemy state’s critical national infrastructure, rather than its military forces, to demoralize the population and, ultimately, force the state’s leaders to capitulate,” the British Defense Ministry said.
In this case, British officials said, the tactic could be less effective because it was employed only half a year into the war, when Russian missile stocks have been depleted and the Ukrainian population has been able to prepare.
Still, in Kherson, the battered city where the new infrastructure strikes took place, the attacks are a source of frustration.
Just weeks ago, Ukraine reclaimed Kherson, forcing Russian troops to withdraw to the east bank of the Dnipro River after a counteroffensive that lasted for months. Since then, Russian forces have fired hundreds of shells across the river at the city.
As in Kyiv, the authorities have been encouraging residents to leave Kherson, given the lack of power and water in the city. On Wednesday, the authorities said they had restored power to 20 percent of customers, only for more strikes to reverse the situation.
Russian forces on Thursday fired 34 shells that hit five settlements in the broader region, killing one person and wounding two others, said Yaroslav Yanushevych, head of the regional military administration.
Despite the efforts of Ukrainian engineers and the support of the European Union and the United States, which have started to deliver both transformers and heavy generators, it will take six months to restore the damaged infrastructure, according to Mr. Herus, the energy official.
“During this winter, it is impossible to restore all the damaged facilities of the energy infrastructure,” he said on Ukraine’s Espresso television channel.
This week, the deputy minister of internal affairs, Yevhen Yenin, said on Ukrainian television that a total of 520 cities, towns and villages were facing power supply problems because of the attacks.
On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Oleksii Hromov, a member of Ukraine’s General Staff, warned of a threat of new missile strikes on infrastructure. “The enemy’s goal is to cause panic in the population,” he said.
Soon after he spoke, air raid alarms sounded across the country, though they were followed by an all-clear.
In Moscow, Mr. Lavrov dismissed as “laughable” suggestions that Moscow might be trying to engage Kyiv in cease-fire negotiations so that it can buy time and replenish its forces amid setbacks on the battlefield.
“We have never asked for any negotiations,” Mr. Lavrov said. “But we have always said that if someone is interested in finding a negotiated solution, we are ready to listen.”
On Thursday, President Biden said at a news conference at the White House after a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron of France that he would talk with President Vladimir V. Putin if the Russian leader expressed a desire to end his invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Biden said he would do so, however, only in consultation with NATO allies.
Marc Santora reported from Kyiv, Ukraine; Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London; and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.