Russia is trying to deplete Ukraine’s air defenses and achieve dominance over Ukrainian skies, the Pentagon’s top policy adviser has warned.
Russia has been pummeling Ukraine with missile strikes throughout the past week, the heaviest wave since Moscow invaded nine months ago.
“They’re really trying to overwhelm and exhaust Ukrainian air defense systems,” Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters Saturday during a trip to the Middle East.
He said that, so far, Russia has not succeeded in breaking Ukrainian air force and air defenses.
“I think one of the things that probably surprised the Russians the most is how resilient Ukraine’s air defenses have been since the beginning of this conflict,” Kahl said.
He attributed Ukraine’s resilience to the “ingenuity and cleverness of the Ukrainians themselves in keeping their air defense systems viable,” but he noted that “it’s also the United States and other allies and partners have provided a tremendous amount of support.”
Britain pledged a $59.4 million air defense package Saturday for Ukraine, including anti-aircraft guns and technology to counter Iranian-supplied drones to Russia. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made the announcement on his first trip to Kyiv, posting a video of his visit on Twitter and pledging “We are with you all the way.”
In its intelligence update Saturday, Britain’s Defense Ministry said that on Wednesday, Russia held its “largest ever debt issuance in a single day.”
The issuance, the ministry said, “is a key mechanism to sustain defense spending, which has increased significantly since the invasion of Ukraine.”
The issuance raised $13.6 billion, according to the update posted on Twitter.
Russia has announced a 2023 defense budget of approximately $84 billion, more than 40% higher than its initial 2023 budget announced in 2021.
“The size of this auction,” the Defense Ministry said, “highly likely indicates the Russian Ministry of Finance perceives current conditions as relatively favorable but is anticipating an increasingly uncertain fiscal environment over the next year.”
Ukraine bracing for cold
In Kyiv people woke up Saturday to several inches of snow. Authorities in the capital are warning of a “complete shutdown,” as subzero temperatures grip the country.
Russian airstrikes have inflicted heavy damage on the energy grid of the Ukrainian capital while they continue to pound Ukraine in multiple parts of the country — from Kyiv in the north to Odesa in the south — crushing almost half of Ukraine’s energy system, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said.
Amid freezing temperatures, difficulties with energy supplies persist in 17 regions of Ukraine as well as the capital, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday in his nightly video address.
He said energy companies worked throughout the day Friday to restore the electricity supply and said there were already significantly fewer emergency shutdowns. In the areas where outages continue, he said, “stabilization hourly schedules were in effect.”
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Olha Stefanishyna, said Friday that Russia’s tactics of cutting electricity, water and gas supplies “massively demoralize civilian population.”
The chief executive of state utility operator Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, said on Ukrainian state television, “We need to prepare for possible long outages, but at the moment we are introducing schedules that are planned and will do everything to ensure that the outages are not very long.”
A United Nations agency said it feared a humanitarian crisis this winter if the power outages continued.
On Friday, Zelenskyy also met with Executive Vice President of the European Commission Valdis Dombrovskis in Kyiv and thanked him for the EU’s planned financial assistance program of more than $18.5 billion in 2023.
Zelenskyy also addressed the annual Halifax International Security Forum, which brings together defense and security officials from Western democracies, in a recorded message Friday.
“Russia is now looking for a short truce, a respite to regain strength … such a respite will only worsen the situation,” he said.
Hundreds detained, missing in Kherson
A Yale University report backed by the U.S. State Department reveals that 226 people were detained or disappeared between March and October, during Russia’s occupation of Kherson.
The Conflict Observatory, a Yale university research program supported by the U.S. State Department, released its independent report Friday. It describes numerous instances of unjust detentions and disappearances in Kherson. “Russia must halt these operations and withdraw its forces to end a needless war that it cannot and will not win — no matter how despicable and desperate its tactics,” a State Department statement announced Friday.
Investigators in liberated areas of the Kherson region have uncovered 63 bodies bearing marks of what appeared to have been torture, Ukraine Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky was quoted as saying.
The Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, released a video of what he said was a torture chamber used by Russian forces in the Kherson region.
Lubinets said Russians tortured Ukrainians with electric current, broke their bones, beat them with metal pipes and killed them. He noted the invaders recorded all their crimes on video.
Reuters was unable to verify the allegations made by Lubinets and others in the video. Russia denies its troops deliberately attack civilians or have committed atrocities.
Meanwhile, Russia claimed Friday that Ukrainian soldiers executed more than 10 Russian prisoners of war, accusing Kyiv of war crimes and the West of ignoring them.
The Russian defense ministry cited a video circulating on Russian social media that it alleged showed the execution of Russian prisoners of war. Reuters was unable to immediately verify either the video or the defense ministry’s assertions.
Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some information came from Agence France-Presse, Reuters and The Associated Press.