KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia reinforced its fighting force Tuesday with an annual fall draft of 120,000 men, and doubled the number of civilians it’s trying to evacuate in anticipation of a major Ukrainian push to recapture the strategically vital southern port city of Kherson.
Russian military officials have assured that conscripts to be called up over the next two months will not be sent to fight in Ukraine, including to the Kherson region, three other Ukrainian areas that Russia recently illegally annexed or to Crimea, which the Kremlin made part of Russia in 2014.
However, the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said the Russian Defense Ministry “is attempting to deceive the Russian population into believing that autumn conscripts will not be sent to fight in Ukraine, likely to prevent draft dodging.”
This year’s fall draft was delayed because of an extraordinary partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists that President Vladimir Putin ordered Sept. 21 specifically to bolster his Ukraine invasion force. While Russian officials have declared the partial mobilization complete, critics have warned it could resume after military enlistment offices are freed up from processing fall conscripts.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that 87,000 of 300,000 reservists have been deployed for combat in Ukraine and that 3,000 military instructors with fighting experience in the country are training them.
Reports suggest that many of the mobilized reservists are inexperienced, were told to procure basic items such as medical kits and flak jackets themselves, and did not receive proper training before deployment. Some were killed within days. After Putin’s order, tens of thousands of men fled Russia to avoid serving in the military.
Some of the fresh troops have reportedly been sent to Kherson, on the 1,100-kilometer (684-mile) front line. Russian-installed authorities in Kherson, fearing a major Ukrainian counterattack, on Tuesday reported relocating 70,000 residents, and they expanded an evacuation area to people living within 15 kilometers (9 miles) of the Dnieper River.
The region’s Kremlin-appointed governor, Vladimir Saldo, said the relocation of an additional 70,000 residents from the expanded evacuation zone would be completed this week and claimed it was ordered because Kyiv “is preparing a massive missile strike on the Kakhovka hydroelectric station” to flood Kherson.
Ukraine’s military on Tuesday described the new evacuations as “forced displacement,” and the Russian-installed government of the Kherson regional district where the Kakhovka hydroelectric station and associated dam and reservoir are located announced it would undertake a “forced evacuation” on Sunday. The Ukrainian military said the Kherson regional administration had been relocated to Skadovsk, 100 kms (62 miles) south of the city of Kherson.
In addition to the Kremlin’s military draft, it moved on another front to bolster its forces. Authorities in Belarus on Tuesday approved the creation of two joint troop training centers with Moscow on the territory of the east European country, which borders Ukraine. Russia has previously used Belarus, its long-standing and economically dependent ally, as a springboard to send troops and missiles into Ukraine. Kyiv fears the Belarusian army could be drawn directly into the war.
Elsewhere, concerns about radiation figured in two developments.
Experts from the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency inspected two Ukrainian sites that Russia identified as involved in its unfounded claims that Ukrainian authorities planned to set off radioactive “dirty bombs” in their own invaded country. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said the inspections for evidence of “dirty bombs” would be completed soon.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, claimed in a letter to the U.N. Security Council members last week that Ukraine’s nuclear research facility and mining company “received direct orders from (President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy’s regime to develop such a dirty bomb.”
Western nations have called Moscow’s repeated claim “transparently false.” Ukrainian authorities dismissed it as an attempt to distract attention from alleged Russian plans to detonate a dirty bomb as a way to justify an escalation of hostilities.
A second radiation concern involves fighting near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The IAEA has stationed monitors at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, where a radiation leak could have catastrophic consequences.
The Ukrainian president’s office said Tuesday that cities and towns around the plant experienced more heavy shelling. In Nikopol, a city which faces the plant from across the wide Dnieper River, more than a dozen apartment buildings, a kindergarten, and businesses were damaged, the office said.
Elsewhere on the battlefront, Russian strikes targeting eight regions of southeastern Ukraine killed at least four civilians and wounded four in 24 hours, Zelenskyy’s office said.
Russian shelling hit 14 towns and villages in the eastern Donetsk region Monday and Tuesday, destroying sections of railway track, damaging a power line and taking down mobile communications in some areas.
The shelling killed three civilians, the region’s governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said. Donetsk is one of four regions Moscow illegally annexed last month, and continues to see fierce clashes as Russian forces press their grinding attack on the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
A woman was killed after Russian rockets hit apartment buildings and a school in the southern city of Mykolayiv, its mayor reported Tuesday.
Ukraine was still grappling with the consequences of Monday’s massive barrage of Russian strikes, which disrupted power and water supplies. Zelenskyy announced Tuesday night that water supply had been restored nationwide, and that for the majority of the population, the same is true for electricity, although he said planned blackouts are still possible to protect the system in nine regions.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, subway service was suspended again on Tuesday, according to the subway’s Telegram page. No reason was given.
Separately, ships loaded with grain continued to depart Ukraine on Tuesday despite Russia’s suspension of its participation in a U.N.-brokered deal to deliver critical food supplies to countries facing hunger. The U.N. said three ships carrying 84,490 metric tons of corn, wheat and sunflower meal left through a humanitarian sea corridor.
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