KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces attacked Russia’s hold on the southern city of Kherson on Thursday while fighting intensified in the country’s east. The battles came amid reports that Moscow-appointed authorities have abandoned the city, joining tens of thousands of residents who fled to other Russia-held areas.
Ukrainian forces were surrounding Kherson from the west and attacking Russia’s foothold on the west bank of the Dnieper River, which divides the region and the country.
As the battles unfolded, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow has no intention to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, despite issuing repeated warnings in the past that he was prepared to use all available means to defend Russia, including its nuclear arsenal.
“We see no need for that,” Putin said at a conference of international foreign policy experts outside Moscow. “There is no point in that, neither political nor military.”
The Russian leader, who insisted for weeks before the invasion that he did not intend to attack Ukraine, also sought to cast the conflict as part of efforts by the West to secure global domination. He accused the U.S. and its allies of trying to dictate their terms to other nations in a “dangerous and bloody” domination game.
Putin, whose troops invaded on Feb. 24, has described Western support for Ukraine as part of broad efforts by Washington and its allies to enforce what they call a rules-based world order that only foments chaos.
Meanwhile, Russia warned that Moscow could target Western commercial satellites used for military purposes in support of Ukraine, and a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman accused the United States of pursuing “thoughtless and mad” escalation.
Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova argued that Washington should take an approach more like it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the Cold War superpowers stepped back from the brink of nuclear confrontation.
“The more the U.S. is drawn into supporting the Kyiv regime on the battlefield, the more they risk provoking a direct military confrontation between the biggest nuclear powers fraught with catastrophic consequences,” Zakharova said.
Ukraine has pushed ahead with an offensive to reclaim the Kherson region and its capital of the same name, which Russian forces captured during the first days of a war now in its ninth month.
More than 70,000 residents from the Kherson city area have evacuated in recent days, the region’s Kremlin-installed governor, Vladimir Saldo, said Thursday.
Members of the Russia-backed regional administration also fled, the deputy governor, Kirill Stremousov said. Monuments to Russian heroes were moved, along with the remains of Grigory Potemkin, the Russian general who founded Kherson in the 18th century. His remains were kept at the city’s St. Catherine’s Church.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described reports of Russian troops’ possible withdrawal from the city as disinformation.
“I don’t see them fleeing from Kherson,” Zelenskyy said in an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper. “This is an information attack, so that we go there, transfer troops from other dangerous directions there.”
Zelenskyy also dismissed as “theater” recent attempts by local Kremlin-backed officials to persuade the city’s civilian residents to relocate deeper into Russian-held territory ahead of the Ukrainian advance.
“Their most trained soldiers are in position. We see this and do not believe them,” Zelenskyy said.
In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces continued to bombard the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, making slow gains toward the center.
The deputy head of Russia’s delegation at a U.N. arms control panel, Konstantin Vorontsov, described the use of U.S. and other Western commercial satellites for military purposes during the fighting as “extremely dangerous.”
“The quasi-civilian infrastructure could be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike,” Vorontsov warned.
As they have all month, Russian forces carried out attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure that have caused increasing worry ahead of winter.
A Russian drone attack early Thursday hit an energy facility near the capital of Kyiv, causing a fire, said Kyiv regional Gov. Oleksiy Kuleba. He said the latest attacks inflicted “very serious damage.”
Kuleba announced new rolling blackouts and urged consumers to save power. He said authorities were still pondering how to restore service.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said rolling blackouts would also be introduced in the neighboring Chernihiv, Cherkasy and Zhytomyr regions.
Zelenskyy has said that Russian attacks have already destroyed 30% of the country’s energy infrastructure.
In a likely response to Russia’s assaults on Ukrainian infrastructure, a drone attacked a power plant just outside Sevastopol, a port in the Russian-annexed region of Crimea. The plant sustained minor damage, according to city leader Mikhail Razvozhayev. He said electricity supplies were uninterrupted.
Crimea was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. It has faced drone attacks and explosions amid the fighting in Ukraine. In a major setback for the Kremlin, a powerful truck bomb blew up a section of a strategic bridge linking Crimea to Russia’s mainland on Oct. 8.
A senior Ukrainian military officer accused Russia of planning to stage explosions at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and blame them on Ukraine in a false-flag attack.
Gen. Oleksii Gromov, the chief of the main operational department of the Ukrainian military’s general staff, pointed to Moscow’s repeated unfounded allegations that Ukraine was plotting to detonate a radioactive dirty bomb as a possible signal that Moscow was planning explosions at the plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station.
Russia took control of the Zaporizhzhia plant in the opening days of the invasion. Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of attacking the plant, which had its reactors shut down following continuous shelling.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian authorities reported that another mass grave was discovered in territory recently reclaimed from Russia. It contained up to 17 bodies of soldiers and civilians.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said in a statement that police found the grave outside the city of Izium after being tipped off by local residents.
The statement cited locals as saying that Russian troops dumped bodies in a pit outside the nearby village of Kopanky in mid-April, then leveled the ground with tanks.
In other developments, Ukrainian authorities said they were launching a criminal case against Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, accusing her of enabling the abduction and forced adoption of thousands of vulnerable Ukrainian children.
Maria Lvova-Belova said this week that she herself has adopted a boy seized by the Russian army in the bombed-out city of Mariupol.
Last month, she was sanctioned by the U.S., U.K. and other Western nations over allegations that she masterminded the removal of over 2,000 vulnerable children from the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk region in Ukraine’s east. According to Ukraine, she orchestrated a new policy to facilitate their forced placement with “foster families” in Russia.
Zelenskyy ended the day on an emotional note, pointing out in his nightly address to the nation that Ukraine on Friday marks the anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis in World War II. This year, he said, the holiday carries special significance.
“Evil always ends the same way. The occupier becomes a capitulator, the invader — a fugitive. War criminals become defendants. Aggression becomes a court verdict. Destruction turns into reparations. Enemy equipment becomes museum exhibits,” Zelenskyy said.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine