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Russia vowed to regain the initiative in its troubled Ukraine offensive, as it hit power plants causing blackouts across the northeast of the country after a lightning advance by Kyiv’s forces that’s reversed Moscow’s gains.

More than 30 settlements, including Kramatorsk and Dnipro, suffered Russian missile and air strikes over the past day, Ukraine’s General Staff said in its regular update on Facebook on Monday. Kharkiv, one of at least two power plants struck by rockets, had power restored only to lose it again later on Monday after being repeatedly shelled, Interfax-Ukraine reported, citing the city’s mayor.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia will not settle for anything less than victory in its invasion of the neighbouring state, now in its 29th week. Still, the losses mark a major and unexpected strategic setback in Ukraine that could potentially mark a turning-point in the conflict, said two people close to thedefence ministry and security services in Moscow. 

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The US ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, accused Russia in a tweet late on Sunday of “sending missiles to attempt to destroy critical civilian infrastructure,” in an apparent response to Kyiv’s liberation of territory that had been occupied by Russian forces.

The strikes hint at efforts to retaliate after a sudden breakthrough by Ukraine that sent Russian troops fleeing and put Moscow on the defensive. Ukraine’s top commander said that 3,000 square kilometres of lost territory have been returned to Kyiv’s control since the beginning of September.

Peskov brushed off concerns over the hasty retreat in the northeast as Putin presided over a government meeting in Moscow at which he assured that the economy is returning to normal and has repelled the western sanctions imposed over the war. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov announced that he was sending a new detachment to fight in Ukraine.

But with a lack of manpower and rapidly depleting equipment likely to become a growing concern for Russia’s forces, the risk is that Ukraine could try to cut off the Kremlin’s overstretched forces in the south and threaten Crimea, the person close to the defence Ministry said. 

Putin annexed the Black Sea peninsula in 2014 but it is relatively lightly defended, the person said. In a bid to raise the stakes, Russia will most likely escalate attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, the person close to the security services said.

On Sunday night, utility Ukrenergo reported damage from Russian strikes on power-grid facilities in Ukraine’s northeast. A power and heat plant in Kharkiv region was hit, causing power cuts in several regions, including Poltava, while Kharkiv’s governor said that most of the region had been cut off. 

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was repeatedly shelled on Monday afternoon immediately after power and water were restored, causing another blackout and halting public transport in a re-run of Sunday. “Critical infrastructure facilities were once again damaged,” with power engineers and rescue teams working to path things up, mayor Ihor Terehov said, according to Interfax-Ukraine. 

As a result of the recent reverses, the Kremlin has put off referendums planned in the coming months annexing Ukrainian territory in the eastern Donbas regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and the southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporozhzhia, two separate people familiar with the matter said.

Those losses accelerated over the weekend as Ukraine exploited a collapse of Russian defences in the Kharkiv region bordering Luhansk and Donetsk. Russian troops were forced to pull out because the Ukrainian forces outnumbered them many times, an occupation official, Vitaly Ganchev, said on state television. 

Significant Losses

Local officials in occupied Ukrainian areas are now terrified of Kyiv’s forces taking over and being rounded up as collaborators, a Kremlin political consultant said. The situation in Luhansk is “tense and difficult,” said a pro-Moscow security official, Andrei Marochko, according to state news service Tass.

Troops continue to liberate areas of Kharkiv and Donetsk, and inflicted significant losses on Russian forces on the Kherson axis in the south, according to Ukraine’s General Staff on Monday. Over the past day, Ukrainian military dislodged Russian troops from more than 20 settlements, it said. 

The advance, representing Ukraine’s biggest victory since pushing Russian troops from Kyiv in March, is also among the most consequential, and has prompted criticism of how the war is being executed among Russian military bloggers and others loyal to the Kremlin.

“Mistakes were made,” Chechen leader Kadyrov, who’s sent thousands of his fighters to the front, said in a late-night Telegram post on Saturday.

Russia’s defence ministry on Saturday confirmed troop withdrawals from the region, yet cast the move as part of a plan to redeploy forces further east to “achieve the stated goals of liberating Donbas.” On Sunday, it published a map showing much of the country’s forces out of the Kharkiv region, without commenting further.

“The rapid Ukrainian successes have significant implications for Russia’s overall operational design,”

the UK Ministry of defence said in its regular intelligence update on Monday. 

The majority of Russian troops are

“highly likely being forced to prioritise emergency defensive actions,” it said. “The already limited trust deployed troops have in Russia’s senior military leadership is likely to deteriorate further.”

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