KYIV — Ukraine accused Russia on Monday of looting empty homes in the southern city of Kherson and occupying them with troops in civilian clothes to prepare for street fighting in what both sides predict will be one of the war’s most important battles.
In recent days, Russia has ordered civilians out of Kherson in anticipation of a Ukrainian assault to recapture the city, the only regional capital Moscow has seized since its invasion in February.
Kherson, with a prewar population of nearly 300,000, has been left cold and dark after power and water were cut to the surrounding area over the past 48 hours, both sides said.
Russian-installed officials blamed Ukrainian “sabotage” and said they were working to restore electricity. Ukrainian officials said the Russians had dismantled 1.5 km of power lines, and electricity probably would not return until Ukrainian forces recapture the area.
Kyiv has described the evacuation of the area as a forced deportation, a war crime. Moscow says it is sending residents away for safety.
About 100 disabled children were moved from a medical facility in Dnipriany in Kherson region to the Moscow region, Ukraine’s military said. Patients from an elderly persons’ home in Kakhovka were also being moved and Russian forces are taking over those facilities, it said.
Kherson lies in the only pocket of Russian-held territory on the west bank of the Dnipro River that bisects Ukraine. Recapturing it has been the main focus of Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the south, which has accelerated since the start of October.
The situation inside Kherson could not be independently confirmed. Ukrainian forces on the nearby frontline have told Reuters they expect a bitter fight against Russian troops determined to exact a blood price before being forced out.
Ukraine’s military said Russian forces, “disguised in civilian clothes, occupy the premises of civilians and strengthen positions inside for conducting street battles.”
Russian forces were “involved in looting and theft from residents and from infrastructure sites and are taking away equipment, food and vehicles to the Russian Federation,” it said in an update late Monday.
Reuters was seeking comment from Russian authorities on the Ukrainian allegations. Moscow denies abusing civilians.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Monday that Donetsk region in the east remained the “epicenter” of fighting, with hundreds of Russians being killed every day.
The towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka are the focal points of the heaviest fighting in Donetsk region.
‘THEY CALL PEOPLE MEAT’
On the diplomatic front, both the White House and Kremlin declined to comment on a Wall Street Journal report that U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has held talks with aides to President Vladimir Putin, aiming to reduce the risk of the war escalating.
The war has inflicted major damage on the global economy and raised fears of nuclear conflict.
“We reserve the right to speak directly at senior levels about issues of concern to the United States,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said later, adding those conversations have focused “only on risk reduction.”
The United States’ support for Ukraine will be “unflinching and unwavering” regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s congressional elections, she added.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Ukraine was ready to negotiate an end to the war with a future Russian leader but not Putin, after a Washington Post report that the United States had urged Kyiv to signal a readiness for peace talks to ensure it retains Western support.
“Ukraine has never refused to negotiate. Our negotiating position is known and open,” Podolyak said on Twitter, adding that Russia should first withdraw forces from Ukraine. “Is Putin ready? Obviously not.”
Russia lost all of the territory it captured in northern Ukraine in the weeks after the invasion, and in recent months has faced major setbacks in the east and south.
Putin has responded to the losses by calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists and announcing the annexation of occupied lands. He said on Monday 50,000 newly recruited reservists were already fighting in combat units.
But as more and more troops get sent to the front and casualties mount with few fresh signs of gains, there has been increasing disquiet within Russia over the conduct of the war.
Russia’s defense ministry took the rare step on Monday of denying that an elite unit had suffered catastrophic losses in a pointless assault, after Russian military bloggers posted an open letter from surviving members of the Pacific Fleet’s 155th marine brigade.
In the letter, addressed to Oleg Kozhemyako, governor of the unit’s Pacific coast base home region, the marines said that over just four days their unit had lost 300 men killed, wounded or missing, and half of their equipment.
They blamed generals seeking medals and bonuses, who “call people meat.”
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux Writing by Peter Graff, Mark Heinrich and Doina Chiacu Editing by Angus MacSwan, Alison Williams and Matthew Lewis)