Ukraine says it has recaptured swathes of territory from Russian troops in the country’s south as discontent has been mounting in Russia about the handling of the war.
Ukrainian forces have retaken more than 500sq km (195sq miles) of territory and dozens of settlements in the southern Kherson region alone since Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday.
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In a video address, he said there have also been more military successes in the east. The battlefield victories reported in Kherson are the latest in a series of Russian defeats undermining the Kremlin’s claim to have annexed about 20 percent of Ukraine.
Southern army command spokeswoman Natalia Gumeniuk said the recaptured territory was home to nearly 30 towns and villages that had been occupied by Russian forces for months.
Kherson, a region with an estimated pre-war population of about one million, was captured early and easily by Moscow’s troops after their invasion launched on February 24.
Russian-installed officials have renewed a call for the region’s residents to remain calm with deputy leader Kirill Stremousov saying Kremlin forces were holding back the advance.
Addressing a meeting in Prague of European heads of state, Zelenskyy called on Western governments to supply his army with more weapons “to punish the aggressor”.
He said Ukraine must fend off Moscow’s invasion “so that Russian tanks do not advance on Warsaw or again on Prague”.
The EU imposed its latest round of sanctions on Russia, expanding bans on trade and individuals over Moscow’s formal annexation on Friday of four Ukrainian regions.
Deadly missile attack
On Thursday, seven Russian missiles struck an apartment building in downtown Zaporizhzhia, just 40km (25 miles) from the artillery battles of the southern front.
Governor Oleksandr Starukh in the Zaporizhia region said two women were among the dead and 12 were wounded, including a three-year-old. He said five people were still under the debris.
Images of the aftermath of Thursday’s missile strike showed a gaping, rubble-strewn hole where a five-storey apartment block used to stand.
There was no immediate comment from Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine has begun to unravel since a Ukrainian counteroffensive was launched in September.
Thousands of Russian soldiers have retreated after the front line crumbled, first in the northeast and since the beginning of this week also in the south.
Public criticism of Russia’s top military officials, once taboo, is growing. On Thursday, a Russian-installed official in occupied Ukraine openly mused about the idea of Sergey Shoigu, the defence minister and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, shooting himself because of the shame of his military failures.
Ukraine’s military also said it is reclaiming territory in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, which have been partially controlled by Kremlin proxies since 2014.
Ukrainian forces made gains on the west bank of the Dnieper River, which cuts through Kherson, but the Russian military in a briefing said soldiers rebuffed “repeated attempts to break through our defences”.
The Ukrainian push deeper into Kherson is putting further strain on the Kremlin’s annexation last week of the territory — along with three others — and its statement that its residents were Russian “forever”.
Putin has promised to defend Russia’s territory — including the annexed Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhia regions of Ukraine — with any means at his military’s disposal, including nuclear weapons.
The four territories create a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from Moscow, said Russia is “adamant” it will push the Ukrainian army back and claim full control over the four partly occupied regions.
“Putin has vowed to — in Russia’s terminology — ‘liberate’ those four regions,” Vall said. “Interestingly, Russia did not talk about particular borders when they signed the annexation documents and said that for Zaporizhia and Kherson, it is not yet even defined where those territories end, … so it is a tricky situation there.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russian forces of “deliberately striking civilians to sow fear”.
“Russian terror must be stopped by force of weapons, sanctions and full isolation,” he said.
In remarks to Australia’s Lowy Institute, Zelenskyy said NATO should launch preventive strikes on Russia to preclude its use of nuclear weapons.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the comments as “an appeal to start yet another world war with unpredictable, monstrous consequences”, according to Russia’s state RIA news agency.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, said during a visit to Kyiv that it is “obvious” the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, belongs to Ukraine.
Grossi was in Kyiv to discuss creating a security zone around the plant after Putin ordered his government to impound it. Grossi talked with Ukrainian officials — and later will confer in Moscow with Russian officials — on efforts to set up a protection zone around the nuclear power station.
Grossi said mines appear to have been planted around the perimeter of the plant, which has been damaged during the war, causing worries of a possible radiation leak. Zelenskyy said Russia has stationed as many as 500 troops at the plant.