Russia targeted infrastructure facilities in central and eastern Ukraine on Sunday evening in a response to a dramatic Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv province that has reshaped the war and left Moscow reeling.
The mayor of Kharkiv city, Ihor Terekhov, said a strike had knocked out power and water to much of the city, in what he described as an act of “revenge” by Russia for Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes. There were reports of blackouts in Dnipro, Poltava and other eastern cities, potentially affecting millions of civilians.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy blamed “Russian terrorists” for the blackouts. “No military facilities [were attacked],” the Ukrainian president said in a statement on social media. “The goal is to deprive people of light and heat.”
In a message on Telegram on Sunday night, he said the Kremlin would not succeed in breaking the Ukrainian people, and appeared to address the Russian leadership, asking: “Do you still think that we are ‘one people’? Do you still think that you can scare us, break us, make us make concessions? You really did not understand anything?”
In an early evening update on the military situation, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukrainian forces, said Ukrainian soldiers had regained control of about 3,000 sq km of territory since the start of September, and were approaching the border in the country’s north-east.
“In the Kharkiv direction, we began to advance not only to the south and east, but also to the north. There are 50km to go to the state border [with Russia],” Zaluzhnyi said.
The Ukrainians have retaken the rail hub of Kupiansk, 60 miles east of Kharkiv, and are in the process of seizing Izium, which was being abruptly abandoned by the Russians whose defence ministry said their forces were regrouping.
Then on Sunday night, the country’s military said it had seized checkpoints due north of Kharkiv city, on the Russian border, in an area separate from the breakthroughs of the past week, south-east and east of the industrial city.
In an attempt to hit back, Russia launched strikes targeting the power grid on Sunday that plunged Kharkiv and other areas into darkness. Ukraine’s leadership has long feared that attacks on the grid could take place in the run-up to winter.
In Sumy province in the north-east, the governor urged residents to unplug electrical devices. “Electric tension has fallen in the network through the region,” Dmytro Zhyvytsky wrote on the Telegram messaging app. “I recommend disconnecting electrical devices as much as possible.”
Officials in Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk and Poltava regions said power was restored shortly after, but Kharkiv was still in darkness as midnight approached. Mykhailo Podolyak, a top Zelenskiy aide, said the city’s CHPP-5 electricity station had been hit.
The Russian strikes come after several days of striking Ukrainian gains. According to the Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank, Ukraine has retaken more territory in five days than Russia had taken since April in the lightning counteroffensive, whose success has alarmed vocal supporters.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed leader of Chechnya, criticised the military for the battlefield setbacks and said he might have to raise his concerns with president Vladimir Putin if the strategy did not change within a day or two.
“I will be forced to speak with the leadership of the defence ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground to them,” the nationalist leader said. “It’s a very interesting situation. It’s astounding, I would say,” he added.
Russia’s leadership has said little about the fast-developing military situation. But defence ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov claimed in a statement the Russian retreat was in fact a “regrouping of forces” in Izium and nearby to strengthen defence lines in the neighbouring Donetsk region.
On Sunday night, Ukrainian military intelligence claimed that the general commanding Russia’s western army group has been sacked in the wake of the retreat. It reported on its Telegram channel that Gen Roman Berdnikov has been replaced after only 17 days in his post.
On Saturday, as the disastrous news for Russia from the front trickled through, Putin was busy opening a huge observation wheel in a Moscow park as part of celebrations for Moscow Day. Military bloggers sharply criticised him for going ahead with the celebrations and making no reference to the war.
Videos from recently recaptured territory illustrate the scale of the rout, showing military hardware and ammunition left behind by fleeing Russians at their former positions. Ukrainian politicians shared morale-boosting videos of the country’s soldiers raising the national flag in various towns and villages.
Ukrainian officials stopped short of confirming they had recaptured Izium, however, but Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, posted a photo of troops on its outskirts and tweeted an emoji of grapes. The city’s name means “raisin”.
Izium, captured by the Russians in March and April, is a strategic gateway into the western Donbas, which is still under Ukrainian control, and was one of most advanced bridgeheads held by the invaders in the east of the country.
A day earlier, on Saturday night, Zelenskiy put the figure of recaptured territory at 2,000 sq km, notably lower than the commander in chief’s figure, suggesting sweeping gains were being made in an area Russia had hoped to integrate into its homeland.
Even Kyiv has been somewhat surprised by its success. Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said Kyiv’s lightning offensive had gone far “better than expected” in an interview with the Financial Times – and he warned that it would be important to consolidate its gains.
Kyiv had surprised Moscow with the attack which began on Tuesday last week, in an that was area lightly defended with no available reserves, partly because Russia had redeployed some of its more experienced forces to the south to defend Kherson, where Ukraine had begun a separate counterattack.
Speaking at a conference in Kyiv over the weekend, Zelenskiy said the next three months would be critical. “Ahead are 90 days that will determine more than 30 years of Ukrainian independence. Ninety days that more than all other years will determine the existence of the EU. The winter will determine our future,” he said.
Analysts now believe that Ukraine may, despite Reznikov’s caution, press on further and push into the north of Luhansk province, one of the two Donbas regions, that Russia had claimed as wholly captured in July.