Russian 'kamikaze' drones hit Kyiv, Putin has talks in ally Belarus

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By Tom Balmforth and Valentyn Ogirenko

KYIV (Reuters) - Russian "kamikaze" drones hit key energy infrastructure in and around Kyiv on Monday and President Vladimir Putin visited Belarus for the first time since 2019, fuelling Ukrainian fears he will pressure his ally to open a new invasion front.

But Ukraine was hardly mentioned by Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko after their talks, with remarks to reporters dwelling instead on bilateral and economic cooperation.

The Ukrainian military high command said their air defences had shot down 23 of 28 drones - most over the capital Kyiv - in what was Moscow's third air strike in six days and the latest in a series since October targeting the Ukrainian power grid, causing sweeping blackouts amid sub-zero temperatures.

No casualties were reported as a result of the drone strikes, it said in its evening update, though nine buildings were damaged in the Kyiv region.

The Ukrainian atomic energy agency accused Russia of sending one of the drones over part of the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant in the Mykolaiv region.

"This is an absolutely unacceptable violation of nuclear and radiation safety," Energoatom wrote on Telegram.

Invading Russian forces now occupy the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor complex, Europe's largest, in southeastern Ukraine near the front line.

The "kamikaze" drones used in the attacks are cheaply produced, disposable unmanned aircraft that fly towards their target before plummeting at speed and detonating on impact.

A Reuters witness said a fire raged overnight at an energy facility in the often-targeted Shevchenkivskyi district of central Kyiv, a city of 3.6 million people.

The Solomianskyi district in the western part of Kyiv, a busy transport hub and home to a train station and one of the city's two passenger airports, was also hit.

"As a result of the attack on the capital, critical infrastructure facilities were damaged," Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging app. "Engineers are working to quickly stabilise the situation with energy and heat supply."

Oleskiy Kuleba, governor of the region surrounding Kyiv, said infrastructure and private homes were damaged and three areas had been left without power.

BELARUS ACTIVITY

To the northwest of Ukraine, there has been constant Russian and Belarusian military activity for months in Belarus, a close Kremlin ally that Moscow's troops used as a launch pad for their abortive attack on Kyiv in February.

Putin's trip was his first to Minsk since the pandemic and a wave of Belarusian street protests in 2020 that Lukashenko crushed with support from the Kremlin.

Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev said before Putin's arrival that Kyiv expected the Minsk talks would address "further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground".

However, Putin and Lukashenko scarcely touched on Ukraine at a post-talks news conference, instead extolling the benefits of defence and economic alignment and Sunday's World Cup soccer final in response to journalists who were invited to speak.

Lukashenko has said repeatedly he has no intention of sending his country's troops into Ukraine, where Moscow's invasion has faltered badly of late with a string of battlefield retreats in the face of a major Ukrainian counter-offensive.

The Kremlin earlier dismissed the suggestion that Putin wanted to push Belarus into a more active role in the conflict. The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying such reports were "groundless" and "stupid".

Both Putin and Lukashenko were also at pains to dismiss the idea of Russia annexing or absorbing Belarus. "Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone," Putin said. "There is simply no expediency in this."

Russian troops that moved to Belarus in October will conduct battalion tactical exercises, Russia's Interfax news agency reported, citing the defence ministry. It was not immediately clear when they would start.

FIGHTING GRINDS ON

The 10-month-old conflict in Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War Two, has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to ruins.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the armed forces were holding firm in the town of Bakhmut - scene of the fiercest fighting for many weeks as Russia seeks to advance in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk province.

In its update, Ukraine's General Staff said Russian artillery on Monday hammered 25 towns and villages around Bakhmut and Avdiivka, and several areas around Kupiansk, a northeastern town retaken by Kyiv's forces in September.

It also said Ukrainian air and artillery forces carried out more than a dozen strikes on concentrations of Russian troops and hardware including ammunition dumps, and shot down two helicopters.

On Monday, Zelenskiy appealed to Western leaders meeting in Latvia to supply a wide range of weapons systems especially modern battle tanks, air defence systems and artillery.

Denis Pushilin, Russian-installed administrator of the part of the Donetsk region controlled by Moscow, said Ukrainian forces shelled a hospital in Donetsk city, killing one person and injuring several others.

Russia's defence ministry said that over the past 24 hours its forces had shot down four U.S.-made HARM anti-radiation missiles over the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine, state-run TASS news agency reported.

Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts of either side.

Putin casts what he calls Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine as the moment when Moscow finally stood up to the U.S.-led Western bloc seeking to capitalize on the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union by destroying Russia.

Kyiv and the West say his assertion is nonsense and that Putin has no justification for what they see as an imperial-style war to reassert dominance over Russia's fellow ex-Soviet republic and put Moscow in control of around a fifth of Ukraine.

(Writing by Lincoln Feast, Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich; editing by Shri Navaratnam, Tomasz Janowski and Hugh Lawson)