Ukraine struggles to restore power in war's first winter

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Much of Ukraine on Thursday remained without heat or power after the most devastating Russian air strikes on its energy grid so far, and in Kyiv residents were warned to brace for further attacks and stock up on water, food and warm clothing.

Ukrenergo, which oversees Ukraine's national power grid, said 50 percent of demand in Ukraine was not being met as of 7 p.m. Kyiv time (1700 GMT) after key energy facilities were hit and it could not say when everything would be fully restored.

In the capital Kyiv, a city of three million, 60 percent of residents were without power amid temperatures well below freezing, mayor Vitaly Klitschko said.

“We understand that missile strikes like this could happen again. We have to be ready for any developments,” he added, according to Kyiv city council.

Ukrenergo said power would first be reconnected to sites of critical infrastructure -- the gas distribution network, water supply networks, sewage systems and hospitals. Domestic consumers would be gradually reconnected, it added.

Viewed from space, Ukraine has become a dark patch on the globe at night, satellite images released by NASA showed, following repeated attacks by Russian missiles in recent weeks.

Ukrainian authorities have set up “invincibility centers”, sometimes in tents, where people can charge phones, warm up and get hot drinks.

“It is the second day we are without power and food. More than 60 children are waiting for food and we cannot prepare anything unless power gets fixed,” said a woman at one such center in Kyiv.

Russia's latest missile barrage killed 10 people and shut down all of Ukraine's nuclear power plants for the first time in 40 years.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an interview with the Financial Times that this week's strike had created a situation not seen for 80 or 90 years - “a country on the European continent where there was totally no light.”

By early evening, officials said a reactor at one nuclear plant, Khmelnytskyi, had been reconnected to the grid.

The vast Zaporizhzhia plant in Russian-held territory was reconnected on Thursday, Ukrainian nuclear power company Energoatom said.

Since early October, Russia has attacked energy targets across Ukraine about once a week, each time firing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of missiles to destroy the power grid.

Moscow acknowledges attacking basic infrastructure, saying its aim is to reduce Ukraine's ability to fight and push it to negotiate. Kyiv says such attacks are clearly intended to harm civilians, making them a war crime.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was Kyiv's fault Ukrainians were suffering because it refused to yield to Moscow's demands, which he did not spell out. Ukraine says it will only stop fighting when all Russian forces have left.

Nuclear officials say interruptions in power can disrupt cooling systems and cause an atomic disaster.

“There is a real danger of a nuclear and radiation catastrophe being caused by firing on the entire territory of Ukraine with Russian cruise and ballistic missiles,” Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine's nuclear operator Energoatom said.

“Russia must answer for this shameful crime.”

Thousands of missing

More than 15,000 people have gone missing during the war in Ukraine, an official at the Hague-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) said on Thursday.

It opened an office in Kyiv in July to help Ukraine document and track down missing people. The ICMP's program director for Europe, Matthew Holliday, said it was unclear how many people had been forcibly transferred, were being held in detention in Russia, were alive and separated from their family members, or had died and had been buried in makeshift graves.

In Kyiv members of the Kyiv National Academic Operetta Theater tearfully bid farewell to 26-year-old ballet dancer Vadym Khlupianets who was killed fighting Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has shifted to the tactic of striking Ukraine's infrastructure even as Kyiv has inflicted battlefield defeats on Russian forces since September. Russia has also declared the annexation of land it occupies and called up hundreds of thousands of reservists.

The war's first winter will now test whether Ukraine can press on with its campaign to recapture territory, or whether Russia's commanders can keep their invasion forces supplied and find a way to halt Kyiv's momentum.

Having retreated, Russia has a far shorter line to defend to hold on to seized lands, with more than a third of the front now blocked off by the Dnipro River.

“Ukraine will slowly grow in capabilities, but a continued maneuver east of the Dnipro River and into Russian-occupied Donbas will prove to be much tougher fights,” tweeted Mark Hertling, a former commander of US ground forces in Europe.

“Ukrainian morale will be tested with continued Russian attacks against civilian infrastructure ... but Ukraine will persevere.”

Russia has pursued an offensive of its own along the front line west of the city of Donetsk, held by Moscow's proxies since 2014. Ukraine said Russian forces tried again to advance on their main targets, Bakhmut and Avdiivka, with only limited success.

Further south, Russian forces were digging in on the eastern bank of the Dnipro, shelling areas across it including the city of Kherson, recaptured by Ukrainian forces this month.

Reuters could not immediately verify the battlefield accounts.

Moscow says it is carrying out a “special military operation” to protect Russian speakers in what Putin calls an artificial state carved from Russia. Ukraine and the West call the invasion an unprovoked war of aggression.

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