A Ukrainian general said on Thursday that Moscow was digging in for a long war and still wanted to conquer the whole of Ukraine, as Russian forces pounded two strategic cities while Kyiv’s troops shelled Russian-controlled Donetsk in the east.
Both sides have ruled out a Christmas truce and there are currently no talks aimed at ending the nearly 10-month-old conflict, Europe’s largest since World War Two.
Russian shelling killed two people in the centre of Kherson, the southern city liberated by Ukraine last month, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the president’s office. The shelling also knocked out the city’s electricity, officials said.
Russian forces also attacked critical infrastructure in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, causing several explosions, its mayor, Ihor Terekhov, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
“The Kremlin… is seeking to turn the conflict into a prolonged armed confrontation,” a senior Ukrainian officer, Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov, told a news briefing.
“The main strategic objective of the enemy remains seizing all the territory of our country (and) not allowing Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration,” said Gromov, who also dismissed the possibility of a truce over the festive period.
On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had said a Christmas ceasefire was “not on the agenda”.
Earlier on Thursday, Alexei Kulemzin, the Russian-installed mayor of Donetsk, said Ukraine had fired 40 rockets from BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers at the city, in what he said was the heaviest attack there since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists wrested it from Kyiv’s control.
There were no reports of deaths in Donetsk, though Kulemzin said five people had been hurt, including a child.
Reuters footage showed firefighters dousing smoking embers in a Donetsk apartment building struck by a missile and also a woman clearing shattered glass in a hospital ward also hit.
Ukraine’s military General Staff said Moscow’s main focus remained on the eastern cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, but that it was also shelling Kherson daily and trying to get a stronger foothold in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia.
“The Russians fired at different areas along the entire front line all night and in the morning,” the Ukrainian governor of Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Telegram, adding there had been two air strikes on Avdiivka.
One person was killed and four injured near Bakhmut, he said.
Reuters was unable to immediately verify battlefield accounts from either side.
“(The Russians) are crawling like zombies on our positions in Bakhmut, creating pressure in the south of the Donetsk region,” Andriy Yermak, head of the presidential office, wrote on Telegram.
“They understand that if they do not stretch the front now, then this winter will be a disaster for them.”
In a move that would significantly bolster Kyiv’s air defence, U.S. officials told Reuters a decision on providing the Patriot missile system to the Ukrainian military could be announced as soon as Thursday.
The Kremlin said the United States was getting “deeper and deeper into the conflict in the post-Soviet republic”, and that U.S. Patriot systems would be legitimate targets, something that Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday applied to all weapons supplied to Ukraine by the West.
Asked about the possibility of Ukraine getting the U.S. Patriot systems, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “It hasn’t been confirmed yet but it will show quite how concerned people are by Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilian, critical national infrastructure.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a speech to the Rights Council following a visit to Ukraine that Russia’s strikes were exposing millions to “extreme hardship”.
Russia denies deliberately attacking civilians. Ukraine says Russian strikes constitute a war crime.
On Wednesday, Kyiv suffered the first major drone attack in weeks. Two administrative buildings were hit, but air defences largely repelled the attack. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said 13 drones had been shot down.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed, millions more displaced and cities reduced to rubble since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in a “special military operation”, saying it needed to protect Russian speakers from Ukrainian nationalists. Kyiv and its allies call it an unprovoked war of aggression.
“We and the world should not relax, because the ultimate goal of the Russian Federation is to conquer all of Ukraine, and then it can move on,” said Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar, speaking at the same Kyiv briefing as Gromov.
Russia has fired barrages of missiles on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure since October, disrupting power supplies and leaving people without heating in freezing winter conditions.
National grid operator Ukrenergo said on Thursday Ukraine continued to suffer a “significant” deficit of electricity due to the strikes, including new ones in the east, adding that the situation was exacerbated by the wintry weather.
A senior U.N. official expressed optimism that there would be a breakthrough in negotiations to ease exports of Russian fertilisers to avoid global food shortages next year.
Russia has complained its concerns about fertiliser exports had not been addressed when a deal for extending a Black Sea grain export agreement was agreed in November.
European Union member states tried again on Thursday to agree on a ninth package of Russia sanctions after Poland and Lithuania blocked a deal late on Wednesday over concerns it might benefit Russian oligarchs in the fertiliser business.
Further financial and military aid to Ukraine will feature prominently on the agenda of EU leaders meeting in Brussels for a summit later on Thursday.