KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he expects a mobilisation of army reservists he ordered to bolster his country's troops in Ukraine to reach the targeted number of recruits in two weeks, a milestone that would allow him to end the hugely unpopular call-up.
Putin told reporters after attending a summit in Kazakhstan that 222,000 of the 300,000 reservists the Russian Defence Ministry set as a goal have been mobilised. A total of 33,000 of them are already in military units and 16,000 are involved in combat, he said.
The call-up, announced by Putin in September as his forces lost occupied ground to a Ukrainian counteroffensive, has aroused public discontent in Russia, where almost all men under the age of 65 are registered as reservists.
At the same time, Russian nationalists have criticised the Kremlin's handling of the war, increasing pressure on Putin to do more to turn the tide in Russia's favour.
Despite Putin and other top officials stating the mobilisation would affect some 300,000 people, the decree the president signed to get the draft going did not mention a specific number.
Russian media reports have suggested the actual number could be as high as 1.2 million reservists.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has implied that a classified clause of the decree contained the number of people the authorities intend to be mobilised, among other details.
Putin initially described the mobilisation as "partial" and said only those with combat or service experience would be drafted.
However, Russian media reports have described attempts to round up men without the relevant experience or who were ineligible for service for medical reasons. In the wake of Putin's order, tens of thousands of men left Russia.
Reports have surfaced since then of recruits getting deployed to the front lines in Ukraine with little training and inadequate equipment.
Several mobilised reservists were reported to have died in combat in Ukraine this week, several days after they were drafted.
Putin said all activated recruits should receive adequate training and that he would assign Russia's Security Council "to conduct an inspection of how mobilised citizens are being trained".
Putin also said Friday there was no need for more widespread attacks against Ukraine, such as those Russia launched Monday in retaliation for an Oct.8 truck bomb explosion on a prized bridge linking Russia to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The Kerch Bridge explosion followed Ukraine's recapturing of occupied areas in the country's east and south in continuing counteroffensives that have restored Ukrainian confidence and embarrassed Russia's military.
Russia has promised free accommodation to residents of Ukraine's partially occupied Kherson region who want to evacuate to Russia, a sign that Ukrainian military gains along the war's southern front are worrying the Kremlin.
The Moscow-installed leader of Kherson, one of four regions illegally annexed by Putin last month, asked the Kremlin to organise an evacuation from four cities, citing incessant shelling by Ukrainian forces.
Vladimir Saldo, the head of the Moscow-appointed regional administration, said a decision was made to evacuate Kherson residents to the Russian regions of Rostov, Krasnodar and Stavropol, as well as to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
"We, residents of the Kherson region, of course know that Russia doesn't abandon their own, and Russia always offers a hand," Saldo said Thursday.
Russia has characterised the movement of Ukrainians to Russia or Russian-controlled territory as voluntary, but in many cases those are the only evacuation routes residents of occupied areas can or are allowed to take.
Reports have surfaced that some Ukrainians were forcibly deported to "filtration camps" with harsh conditions.
In addition, an Associated Press investigation found that Russian officials deported thousands of Ukrainian children - some orphaned, others living with foster families or in institutions - to be raised as Russian.
The evacuation announcement came as Ukrainian forces pushed deeper into the Kherson region, albeit at a slower pace than a few weeks ago.
Ukrainian forces reported retaking 75 populated places in the region in the last month, Ukraine's Ministry for Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories said late Thursday night.
A similar campaign in eastern Ukraine resulted in most of the Kharkiv region returning to Ukrainian control, as well as parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the ministry said.
Putin illegally annexed Kherson, as well as the neighbouring Zaporizhzhia region and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine last month following "referendums" in the four regions that Kyiv and the West denounced as a sham.
Gen.Valeriy Zaluzhny, the commander of Ukraine's armed forces, vowed Friday that his forces would succeed in "getting ours back."
"No one and nothing will stop us," Zaluzhny said in a video message. "We have buried the myth of the invincibility of the Russian army."
While reiterating calls for local residents to evacuate to Russia, Saldo's deputy, Kirill Stremousov, also insisted the evacuation preparations did not mean the Russian-installed officials anticipated Ukrainian forces taking all of the Kherson region.
"No one's retreating. No one is planning to leave the territory of the Kherson region," he said.
For a fifth day, Russia continued missile strikes on critical infrastructure that started Monday in retaliation for an explosion on the Kerch Bridge last weekend that Moscow has said was caused by a truck bomb.
The span, which links Crimea to the Russian mainland, holds important strategic and symbolic value to Russia in its faltering war in Ukraine.
In the last 24 hours, at least nine civilians were killed and 15 were wounded, the Ukrainian president's office reported Friday morning.
The victims included an 11-year-old boy and six other people who died after a missile strike in the city of Mykolaiv, where a residential building was destroyed, the regional governor, Vitaliy Kim, said.
Russian forces on Friday carried out at least four missile strikes on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second- largest city.
Mayor Ihor Terekhov reported several explosions in the northeastern city without offering any details on the extent of the damage or saying if there were any casualties.
The Ukrainian army recaptured most previously occupied areas of the Kharkiv region, which includes the city of the same name, during a fierce counteroffensive last month that forced Russian troops to withdraw and inflicted a stunning blow on Moscow's military prestige.
The region's governor, Oleh Syniehubov, urged residents not to ignore air raid sirens and to get to bomb shelters.
Earlier Russian strikes on Thursday night cut off the electricity in the regional capital, which had a pre-war population of 1.4 million.
Multiple Russian missile strikes shook the city of Zaphorizhzhia overnight.
The capital of the annexed region remains in Ukrainian hands and has come under repeated bombardment as Ukraine pushes its southern counteroffensive.
Several explosions were reported overnight at infrastructure facilities, causing fires, regional Gov, Oleksandr Starukh said.
There were no victims in preliminary reports, and further details about specific damage were unavailable.
Starukh told Ukrainian state television that Russian soldiers remained unable to enter the city but their "missiles remind us of the evil and grief that the army of the occupiers carries".
In addition to the missile strikes on the regional capital, there was also shelling in three cities closer to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
In Nikopol, Marhanets, Chervonohryhorivka, drone and artillery strikes destroyed residential buildings and damaged water supply and power lines.
The regional capital is about 100 miles by road from the plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe.
Two days ago, it was forced to revert to diesel-fuelled generator power to maintain its reactor cooling systems after an Russian missile attack on distant electrical substation.
Friday is Defender's Day in Ukraine, but celebrations were muted because of the war.
In Kyiv, a concert at the central opera house was canceled because of planned, rotating power outages across the city as repairs to the city's energy infrastructure continue following Russia's wide-ranging missile attacks.
Missile, drone and rocket attacks on Ukraine have kept the country on edge with air raid sirens occurring more frequently and bringing a heightened sense of urgency after Monday's strike killed 19 people and wounded more than 100, including many in the capital.
Putin has vowed to retaliate harshly if Ukraine or its allies strike Russian territory, including the annexed regions of Ukraine.
Russian officials reported Friday that Ukrainian shelling blew up an ammunition depot in Russia's Belgorod region on the border with Ukraine.
An unspecified number of people were killed and wounded in the incident, according to Russia's Investigative Committee.
Unconfirmed media reports said three Russian National Guard officers were killed and more than 10 were wounded.
The Kerch Bridge explosion temporarily halted rail and road traffic on the 12-mile span, undermining a vital supply route for the Kremlin's forces.
The Russian government said Friday that repairs were scheduled to be completed by July 2023.
Also on Friday, a court in Simferopol, the second-largest city in Crimea, formally arrested and placed five suspects in pre-trial detention in connection with the explosion, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) stated on Wednesday that it had identified 12 suspects involved in the explosion.
The FSB reported the involvement of Ukrainian, Armenian and Russian citizens in what it described as a "terrorist act".