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Vladimir Putin demands evacuation of civilians from Kherson

President Vladimir Putin has called for the evacuation of civilians from Russian-occupied Kherson, his first acknowledgment that Ukraine’s bid to recapture the city was gaining ground.

“The people who live in Kherson need to be taken out of the zone of the most dangerous [combat] operations, because the civilian population shouldn’t suffer,” Putin told a group of volunteers in Red Square on Friday.

Putin has never publicly called for the evacuation of civilians, although his subordinates have been urging this for weeks. Ukraine has mounted a fierce counter-offensive to take back Kherson, the only regional capital that Russia has been able to capture nine months into its invasion of Ukraine.

Battlefield setbacks have coincided with renewed effort to target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, just as winter approaches. Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Putin of resorting to “energy terror”, saying that 4.5mn people were without power across the country.

The outages are the result of huge Russian missile barrages and drone attacks on Ukrainian power facilities over recent weeks that have plunged much of Kyiv and the rest of the country into night-time darkness. Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Friday that 450,000 residents of the capital were without power.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu admitted this week that his country’s armed forces were targeting critical infrastructure in an attempt “to neutralise military infrastructure facilities, as well as the facilities that influence the reduction of Ukraine’s military capacity”.

Also on Friday, the Pentagon announced a $400mn package of military aid for Ukraine, for the delivery of Hawk air defence systems and tactical Phoenix Ghost drones as well as the refurbishment of advanced tanks to be sent from the Czech Republic. 

The provision of the Hawk system, which the US replaced with the Patriot system in the mid-1990s, marks an upgrade from Stinger surface-to-air missiles they have provided so far, since the Hawk systems have a longer range.

G7 foreign ministers meeting in the German town of Münster said on Friday they had established a “G7 coordination mechanism” to help Ukraine “repair, restore and defend its critical energy and water infrastructure”.

Annalena Baerbock, German foreign minister who hosted the meeting, said the G7 were putting together a “winter package” for Ukraine. “[We’re] delivering generators, mobile homes, water pumps and sanitary facilities,” she told reporters after the meeting.

It is also the first time the US has funded the dispatch of tanks to Ukraine since the war began. The US is funding the refurbishment of 45 tanks owned by the Czech Republic, which is being matched by the Netherlands to retool 45 more tanks.

In Kherson, Russia has continued to lose territory to Ukraine’s larger and better-equipped forces, despite annexing the surrounding province and three other southeastern Ukrainian regions in September.

Putin declared martial law in the four regions last month, giving officials additional powers, including the ability to forcibly evacuate citizens. Russia-installed officials have repeatedly called on locals to leave Kherson province west of the Dnipro river in recent weeks.

In a video posted after Putin’s comments, Kirill Stremousov, the region’s Russia-appointed deputy governor, said a 24-hour curfew was being introduced to “defend the city”. This would “give the military the chance to do their job without civilians.”

Shortly afterwards, however, he deleted the video and posted another in which he assured that Kherson was under total Russian control.

The impact of repeated Russian attacks is increasingly apparent in Kyiv. Craters from missiles are quickly filled in and shattered windows boarded up. But after sundown, the city descends into eerie blackness.

Street lights and business signs remain off, candles flicker in windows and people move about the streets with torches, their faces illuminated only by smartphone screens.

The power outages have also taken their toll on businesses, some of which have been forced to close during blackouts. A major supermarket had to cancel orders when the power went out and it could not process payments.

Sporting goods and electronic stores, however, have been inundated with customers. Oleh Mrichko, a manager at the Gorgany sporting goods store in Kyiv, said more people came “after every drone and missile attack”. 

“They come in to buy these,” he said, gesturing to lamps and portable cooking stoves. Customers have also stocked up on down jackets, gloves, hats, torches, tarpaulins, quick-burning fire starters, woollen socks and hand warmers.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and James Politi in Washington

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