DNIPRO, Ukraine — Losing ground to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Russian forces lashed out at targets far from the front line on Wednesday, striking one distant city with a flurry of what Ukrainian officials said were self-destructing, Iranian-supplied drones.
At least half a dozen of the weapons, known as kamikaze drones, detonated in Bila Tserkva, about 50 miles south of Kyiv and hundreds of miles from the fighting, the officials said.
The goal of the attack was unclear, but since September, when Ukrainian fighters began pushing Russian forces out of occupied territory in the northeast, Moscow has been targeting electrical power stations, electricity transmission lines and waterworks with long-range weaponry. The strikes in Bila Tserkva also hit infrastructure, Oleksiy Kuleba, head of the regional military administration, said in a post on Telegram, the messaging application. He did not provide details.
In the attack on Wednesday, Russia launched a swarm of 12 drones from territory it controls in southern Ukraine, Yurii Ihnat, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force, said in an interview on television. Antiaircraft units shot down three, and Ukrainian jet pilots shot down another three, he said.
In another attack on infrastructure, a Russian missile barrage targeted sites in and around the city of Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine, a regional military governor said.
Military analysts have suggested that the strikes may be intended, in part, to undermine support inside Ukraine for the war, but there is little evidence of that happening, even among Ukrainians at risk of being hit by their own military as the counteroffensive advances.
“Every explosion makes us happy,” declared Serhiy, a retiree living in the southern Kherson region. “You know I’m imagining now how much all of us will cry and hug our soldiers when we see them.”
The State of the War
- Russia’s Retreat: After significant military gains in eastern cities like Lyman, Ukraine is pushing farther into Russian-held territory in the south, expanding its campaign in yet another direction as Moscow struggles to mount a response and hold the line.
- Annexation Push: After Moscow’s proxies conducted a series of sham referendums in the Ukrainian regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Luhansk and Donetsk, President Vladimir V. Putin declared the four territories to be part of Russia. Western leaders, including President Biden in the United States, denounced the annexation as illegal.
- Putin’s Nuclear Threats: For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, top Russian leaders are making explicit nuclear threats and officials in Washington are gaming out scenarios should Mr. Putin decide to use a tactical nuclear weapon.
- Fleeing the Draft: Tens of thousands of men have left Russia to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet territory long seen in Russia as a source of cheap labor and backward ways, has provided a welcoming haven.
The fighting in regions to the east only deepened the incongruity of the scenes playing out on Wednesday in Russia. There, President Vladimir V. Putin announced the signing of more than 400 pages of legislation purporting to formally annex four Ukrainian regions — Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia.
In doing so, the Russian leader forged ahead with an alternate reality in which Moscow pretends to exercise sovereignty over thousands of square miles of territory that its military does not actually control.
Russian state television trumpeted the signing as the day’s biggest news story, while playing down or ignoring the fact that Russian forces were in retreat on multiple parts of the front line.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, bristled when reporters asked about the wide divide between the narrative of Russia’s staterooms and the losses its demoralized military is taking on the ground in the regions the Kremlin covets.
“There’s no contradiction here,” Mr. Peskov said. “They will be with Russia forever.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, responded to Mr. Putin’s signing of the annexation measures, which much of the world has condemned as illegal, with his own flourish of paperwork.
“I signed a decree designating null and void all decrees of the president of the Russian Federation and all acts adopted to implement these decrees for attempted annexation of our territory from 2014 until today,” he told Ukrainians. “Any Russian decisions, any treaties with which they try to seize our land — all this is worthless.”
Moscow also moved to “nationalize” the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is occupied by Russian troops but still operated by Ukrainian staff, even as fighting raged nearby. The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday that its representatives at the plant, which has been shelled repeatedly, had learned from the Ukrainian operators that they intended to restart one of the six reactors.
The Kremlin’s moves came as Western efforts to punish Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine received a setback from global oil producers, which on Wednesday decided to sharply cut the supply, aiming to drive up the price on the world market. The reduction was announced at a meeting in Vienna by the group known as OPEC Plus.
Russia hopes the move will make its crude more valuable, allowing the country, despite the heavy economic sanctions leveled against it, to continue earning significant revenue from its crude exports. At the same time, the European Union on Wednesday agreed to an American plan to cap the price of oil sales by Russia, though not by other countries.
In Washington, meanwhile, officials said that intelligence agencies believed parts of the Ukrainian government had authorized a car bombing near Moscow in August that killed Daria A. Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist, an element of a covert campaign that American officials fear could widen the conflict. They said that her father, Aleksandr G. Dugin, might have been the intended target.
The closely held assessment of Ukrainian complicity was shared within the U.S. government last week. Ukraine denied involvement in the killing immediately after the attack, and senior officials repeated those denials when asked about the intelligence assessment.
Iran has also denied that its attack drones were being deployed in Ukraine, but American and Iranian officials said in August that Tehran had delivered to Russia a first batch of its drones as part of a larger order totaling in the hundreds.
The strikes south of Kyiv on Wednesday appeared to be the first time that kamikaze drones had been used against a target near the Ukrainian capital, and they highlighted Russia’s growing reliance on the weapons, Ukrainian officials say. The Iranian drones first turned up in August in attacks on armored vehicles and artillery in the country’s northeast.
Their use in Ukraine marks the first time the weapons have been deployed outside the Middle East, and comes as Moscow finds its arsenal of domestically made drones increasingly depleted, with few nations willing to supply it with weapons.
In another possible sign that Moscow’s missile supply is dwindling, the Russian military overnight fired two S-300 antiaircraft missiles that had been repurposed for ground attack, the Ukrainian military said. Military analysts have suggested Russia may be running low on long-range missiles after seven months of war and thousands of strikes.
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Dnipro, Ukraine, Anton Troianovski from Berlin and Eric Nagourney from New York. Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Dnipro, Victoria Kim from Seoul and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels.