Russia used Iranian-made drones to target energy infrastructure in and around the port city of Odesa, leaving more than 1.5 million people without power, Ukrainian officials said Saturday.
“The situation in Odesa region is very difficult,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address posted to his Telegram channel. “After the night strike by Iranian drones, Odesa and other cities and villages of the region are in the dark.”
Complete restoration of electricity could take as long as three months, Sergey Bratchuk, a spokesperson for Odesa’s regional military administration, said in a post on his Telegram channel.
He added that the administration had “joined forces” with energy companies “to ensure that electricity reaches the homes of every citizen of our country in the coming days.”
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Zelenskyy said, power outages continued in several cities, including the capital Kyiv.
Russian forces have pounded Ukrainian cities and villages with missiles and drones in recent weeks, inflicting damage on power plants, water supplies and other civilian targets, in a grinding war that is nearing its 10-month mark.
The devastating strikes, have plunged the country into darkness and placed a strain on the health care system, already battered by years of corruption, mismanagement, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scheduled operations have been postponed; patient records have been unavailable because of internet outages; and at times, doctors have been performing surgeries with only a flashlight.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it is targeting civilians.
Since the invasion of Ukraine in February, Iran has sold several hundred unmanned aerial vehicles to Russia in exchange for an “unprecedented level” of military and technical support from Moscow, senior Biden administration officials told NBC News Friday.
The White House had previously said it believed that Iran was supplying drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, but the relationship between the two nations has transformed into “a full-fledged defense partnership” with weapons and military expertise flowing in both directions, the officials said.
Their comments were echoed by Britain’s defense ministry, which said in an intelligence briefing Sunday that “Iran’s support to the Russian military is likely to grow in the coming months,” and Russia was “attempting to obtain more weapons, including hundreds of ballistic missiles.”
Were Russia to get ahold of next-generation drones from Iran, it would make things a lot worse for Ukraine, Frank Ledwidge, a senior lecturer of law and strategy at University of Portsmouth, told NBC News Sunday.
At present, he said most drones “get shot down” and “only 10 or 20% of them get through depending on who you believe.” But he said the next generation “are way more capable, longer range, faster, and designed actually to evade Israeli air defenses.”
Meanwhile, Russian forces continued their campaign in the east and have effectively turned the long sought-after city of Bakhmut into “burnt ruins,” Zelenskyy said in his video address.
Bakhmut has been hotly contested for months, with Russia making little gains in the region despite pouring in troops and bombarding it with rockets.
While it could damage supply lines for the Ukrainians, it also leads to Kramatorsk and Sloviansk — two of the most fortified strongholds.
“It reminds one of some of these actions in the First World War, where a position becomes important because an investment has been made in taking it rather than its inherent value,” said Ledwidge.
In the southeast, Ukraine struck the occupied city of the strategically important city of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, the exiled Ukrainian mayor, said in a post on Telegram, adding that there were hundreds of Russian casualties.
The strikes were launched by the U.S.-supplied HIMARS missiles, Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian-appointed governor of the region, said on his own Telegram. He added that a “recreation center,” where people were dining had been hit on Saturday night.
NBC News could not verify either claim.
“The next Ukrainian offensive will be in that direction to retake Melitopol and strike down toward Berdyansk,” said Ledwidge. He added that that it would help Ukrainian forces cut supplies to Crimea, which Russia has been using as a launchpad for its offensives and missile strikes.