By Hanna Arhirova and Vasilisa Stepanenko | Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rare trip Monday to Moscow’s ally Belarus as his forces pursued their campaign to torment Ukraine from the air amid a broad battlefield stalemate almost 10 months into the war.
Putin’s visit came hours after Russia’s latest drone attack on Ukraine. Moscow has been targeting Ukraine’s power grid since October as part of a strategy to try to leave the country without heat and light during the bitterly cold winter.
The Russian leader’s brief trip to Minsk could herald more military support for the Kremlin’s war effort, after Belarus provided the Kremlin’s troops with a launching pad for the invasion of Ukraine last February.
Belarus is believed to have Soviet-era weapons stockpiles that could be useful for Moscow. Lukashenko, meanwhile, needs help with his country’s ailing economy. It was a rare trip to Minsk by Putin, who usually receives Lukashenko at the Kremlin.
Moscow has kept up its war effort despite Western sanctions and the supply of Western air defense systems to Ukrainian forces.
Sitting beside Lukashenko before their talks in the capital of Minsk, Putin emphasized the allies’ close military-technical ties. He said they include not only mutual supplies of equipment but also joint work in high-tech military industries.
Analysts say the Kremlin might look again for some kind of Belarusian military support for its Ukraine operations. But the winter weather and Russia’s depleted resources mean any big Russian attack probably won’t come soon, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington.
“The capacity of the Russian military, even reinforced by elements of the Belarusian armed forces, to prepare and conduct effective large-scale mechanized offensive operations in the next few months remains questionable,” the think tank said in an assessment published Sunday.
It also concluded that “it is unlikely that Lukashenko will commit the Belarusian military (which would also have to be re-equipped) to the invasion of Ukraine.”
In Ukraine, multiple explosive drones attacked the capital before dawn. The attack came three days after what Ukrainian officials described as one of Russia’s biggest assaults on Kyiv since the war started.
Russia launched 23 self-exploding drones over Kyiv while the city slept, but Ukrainian forces shot down 18 of them, the Kyiv city administration said on Telegram. No major casualties were reported from the attack, although the Ukrainian president’s office said the war killed at least three civilians and wounded 11 elsewhere in the country between Sunday and Monday.
The drone barrage caused emergency power outages in 11 central and eastern regions, including the capital region, authorities said.
Monday was St. Nicholas Day, an occasion that marks the start of the Christmas holidays in Ukraine and is when children typically receive their first gifts hidden under pillows.
“This is how Russians congratulated our children on the holiday,” Serhii Kruk, the head of Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, wrote on Telegram, attaching photos of firefighters barely distinguished amid the flames of an infrastructure facility that was hit.
“In the night when everyone is waiting for a miracle, the terrorist country continues to terrorize the peaceful Ukrainian people,” said Ukraine’s human rights chief, Dmytro Lubinets.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the unrelenting daily barrages as “terror” and once again pleaded for Western countries to send sophisticated air defense systems as winter tightens its grip.
“A 100% air defense shield for Ukraine will be one of the most successful steps against Russian aggression,” Zelenskyy said by video link at a northern European regional threat conference in Latvia. “This step is needed right now.”
Wreckage from the downed drones damaged a road in the central Solomianskyi district and broke windows in a multistory building in the Shevchenkyvskyi district of Kyiv, city officials said.
One drone hit the home of Olha and Ivan Kobzarenko, ages 84 and 83, in the outskirts of the capital. Ivan sustained a head injury.
Their garage was destroyed and their dog, Malysh, was killed. Olha, speaking in her bedroom where shattered glass and blood covered the floor, said the blast flung the front gate into the house.
“I know that I am not alone,” she said. “Everyone is suffering. Everyone.”
Nina Sobol, a 59-year-old clerk at one of Kyiv’s power companies, was going to work when the strikes happened. Like many of her colleagues, she waited outside while emergency services inspected damage.
“I feel really anxious,” she said. “Anxious because you never know at which moment there will be an incoming missile.”
Ukraine’s air force said on Telegram that its personnel were able to destroy 30 of at least 35 self-exploding drones that Russia launched across the country from the eastern side of the Azov Sea on Ukraine’s southeast coast. Russia is on the other side of the sea.
The Ukrainian military has reported increasing success in shooting down incoming Russian missiles and drones, but Zelenskyy said Moscow had received a fresh batch of drones from Iran.
Meanwhile, warships from Russia’s Pacific Fleet set off Monday for joint naval drills with China. The exercise follows a series of joint maneuvers that have highlighted growing military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing as they both face tensions with the United States.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the U.S. was treading on dangerous ground by getting involved in the war in Ukraine.
“This dangerous and shortsighted policy has put the U.S. and Russia on the brink of a direct confrontation,” Zakharova said in a statement Monday. “Moscow is calling on Joe Biden’s administration to soberly assess the situation and refrain from dangerous escalation.”
Renata Brito in Kyiv contributed.
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