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Russia says Ukraine has fired more missiles at a border region on the eve of election favoring Putin

By EMMA BURROWS, Associated Press
Published: March 14, 2024, 8:42am

Ukraine fired at least eight missiles at Russia’s Belgorod border region, killing two people and wounding 12, local officials said Thursday, as Kyiv’s forces apparently kept up efforts to rattle the Kremlin on the eve of Russia’s presidential election that is taking place amid a ruthless crackdown on dissent.

Also, Ukrainian forces attempted cross-border raids that were repelled in Belgorod and the Kursk region, according to local authorities. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed its troops killed 195 Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed five tanks and four armored infantry vehicles, two days after saying it killed 234 Ukrainian troops in another border assault.

It is not possible to independently verify the Russian claims. Cross-border attacks in the area have occurred sporadically since the war began and have been the subject of claims and counterclaims, as well as disinformation and propaganda.

The Ukrainian assaults on Russian territory in recent days, including long-range drone attacks and alleged incursions by Ukraine-based Russian proxies, have come as Russian President Vladimir Putin heads for near-certain reelection.

Putin has sought to persuade Russians to keep him in power against a backdrop of what he says are foreign threats to the country and as the Ukraine war stretches into its third year.

In a video released Thursday, Putin called on Russians to go to the polls, calling participation in the election a “manifestation of patriotic feeling.”

Claiming that “the only source of power in our country is the people,” Putin told Russians, “you must not only cast your vote, but firmly declare your will and aspirations, your personal involvement in the further development of Russia.”

“Elections are a step into the future,” Putin said.

Since coming to power almost 25 years ago, Putin has eliminated nearly all independent media and opposition voices in Russia, particularly after the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine that initially went badly wrong.

Analysts say the Kremlin is worried about low turnout during the three days of voting and needs Russians to participate to give legitimacy to Putin, who is almost certain to win another six-year term.

Sam Greene, with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, called Russia’s election “a sham.”

“The Kremlin controls who’s on the ballot. The Kremlin controls how they can campaign,” Greene told The Associated Press. “To say nothing of being able to control every aspect of the voting and the vote counting process.”

Russia’s exiled opposition are calling on Russians to protest against the election by gathering at polling stations at noon on Sunday in a signal that they don’t support Putin. The event has been dubbed “Noon against Putin” and is being supported by Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader who died in a remote Arctic penal colony last month.

Despite Russia’s early difficulties in the war, when its assault on Kyiv failed and Western countries came to Ukraine’s aid by sending weapons and training troops, the Kremlin’s forces now have battlefield initiative, military analysts say.

That is largely because Western aid has petered out due to European shortages and is now being held up in the United States by political differences.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Russian forces “have the theater-wide initiative and will be able to determine the time, location, and scale of offensive operations” on the battlefield for the moment.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies said Russia’s assault is gaining momentum and the coming months are “critical to the direction of conflict.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday warned that delays in deliveries to Ukraine are costing lives.

“The Ukrainians are not running out of courage, they are running out of ammunition,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

While Ukraine wrestles with increasingly meager battlefield resources, Russia has significantly expanded its own weapons production and is getting ammunition from Iran and North Korea.

That bodes badly for Ukraine once Putin has likely cemented his grip on power, the think tank said in a report Wednesday.

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“Over the spring and summer, Russia is likely to mount a series of major attacks designed to inflict Ukrainian casualties, push defenders westward and expand its control of occupied territories,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies said.

For now, it said, “the land war looks bloody and favors Moscow.”

Associated Press writer Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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