Russian border region suffers sustained Ukrainian artillery and drone strikes

A Russian border region being pounded by Ukrainian shelling and drones is expanding its closure of schools and colleges amid a major evacuation plan, as Kyiv’s forces extend their campaign of long-range strikes.

Ukraine lacks ammunition supplies along the 620-mile front line due to a shortfall in promised Western supplies, which is one of the main factors forcing its army to take a more defensive stance.

But at the same time, Kyiv is attacking oil facilities deep inside Russia and seeking to unnerve its border regions.

Some Belgorod schools near the border will close early ahead of school holidays, regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov announced, after Ukraine shelling continued to cause deaths and injuries among the local population.

A woman walks by Ukrainian flags placed at a memorial for fallen soldiers in Kyiv (AP)

Also, universities and colleges will switch to remote learning, and clubs and cultural, sports and other educational institutions will stay closed.

The measures were announced a day after the governor unveiled plans to evacuate about 9,000 children from the region and several days after a rubber-stamp presidential election in Russia in which President Vladimir Putin extended his rule in a landslide.

Despite the attacks, the official voting turnout in the Belgorod region was 87%, and Mr Putin officially captured 90.66% of the vote, described as a sham by Ukraine and its Western allies.

Ukraine’s attacks on Russian soil have embarrassed the Kremlin. An artillery strike on the centre of Belgorod city on December 30 killed 21 people, including three children, local officials said.

Mr Putin vowed to provide support for Belgorod civilians who have lost their homes and businesses.

“There is a lot to do and we will do everything which depends on us,” he said at a televised meeting at the Kremlin.

“Of course, the primary task is to ensure safety. There are different ways to do this. They are not easy, but we will do it.”

Russia’s defence ministry said it intercepted 13 Ukrainian rockets over the Belgorod region around mid-morning on Wednesday.

Mr Gladkov, the governor, said one person was killed and two others were injured, including a 17-year-old girl, in the attack. He said 16 people have been killed over the past week alone.

In another possible sign of Kyiv’s strategy, Ukrainian drones targeted the city of Engels, about 500 miles east of the border with Ukraine in the Saratov region. An air base for strategic bombers is near the city.

Russia’s defence ministry said it took down four drones over the Saratov region.

Long-range strikes on Russia are “a cost-effective way to create challenges for the Russian state,” said Michael Kofman, a military expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A building on fire
Russian attacks also continue in Ukrainian areas, such as Kharkiv (AP)

The European Union is moving ahead with a plan to use the profits generated from billions of euros of Russian assets frozen in Europe to help provide weapons and other funds for Ukraine.

EU leaders are expected to endorse the plan at a summit in Brussels starting on Thursday.

But the United States is Ukraine’s crucial military supplier, and US congress remains stalled over funding to send additional weapons to the front.

America has repeatedly pledged to stand by Ukraine “for as long as it takes” but its failure to do so leaves Ukraine at the mercy of Russia’s much bigger and better provisioned army, analysts say.

Meanwhile, the Czech government has pressed ahead with a plan to source from around the world large amounts of artillery shells which Ukraine desperately needs. Officials say they have confirmed purchases for 300,000 shells and promises for another 200,000.

The Czech government’s national security adviser, Tomas Pojar, said Ukraine should get the first of those shells in June at the latest.

In other developments, five people were injured in a Russian attack on Kharkiv city in north-eastern Ukraine, according to Mayor Ihor Terekhov. Rescuers are searching for people under the rubble.

Also, a 74-year-old school worker in north-eastern Ukraine’s Sumy region was killed in a Russian air strike on Tuesday, the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

Russian troops destroyed a school and house in a border village.

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