A drone places a large national flag in front of the Motherland of Ukraine monument in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday. A Ukrainian official said the death toll from a Russian rocket attack on a train station and surrounding area on Ukraine’s Independence Day has risen to 25. (Evgeny Maloletka, Associated Press)

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KYIV, Ukraine – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered a major build-up of his country’s military forces to replenish troops that have suffered heavy losses in a bloody six-month war and prepare for a long, drawn-out battle ahead in Ukraine.

The move to increase troop numbers by 137,000, or 13%, to 1.15 million by the end of the year comes amid chilling developments on the ground in Ukraine:

  • A fire at the Zaporizhia power plant at the heart of fighting in southern Ukraine cut off the electricity grid after it damaged the last working transmission line, amid fears of a nuclear disaster, according to Ukrainian officials. This incident has created excitement in the entire area. The plant was later reconnected to the grid, a local Russian-based official said.
  • The death toll from a Russian rocket attack on a train station and surrounding area on Ukraine’s Independence Day has risen to 25, Ukrainian officials said. Russia said it targeted a military train and claimed to have killed more than 200 Ukrainian reservists in Wednesday’s attack.

Putin’s decree did not specify whether the expansion would be accomplished by widening the draft, hiring more volunteers, or both. But some Russian military analysts predict an over-reliance on volunteers due to Kremlin concerns about potential domestic backlash from an expanded draft.

The decision will bring the total strength of Russia’s armed forces to 2.04 million, including 1.15 million troops.

Western estimates of Russian casualties in the Ukraine war range from 15,000 to 20,000 — more than the Soviet Union lost in the 10-year war in Afghanistan. The Pentagon said last week that 80,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded, reducing Moscow’s ability to launch major offensives.

The Kremlin has said that only volunteer contract soldiers take part in the Ukraine war. But finding more willing soldiers may be difficult, and military analysts said planned troop levels may still be insufficient to sustain operations.

Viktor Murakhovsky, a retired Russian colonel, said in comments via the Moscow-based RBC online news outlet that the Kremlin would likely try to rely on volunteers and predicted that the increase would be a big part.

Another Russian military expert, Alexei Leonkov, noted that training for complex modern weapons typically takes three years. And draftees only serve one year.

In this handout photo, taken from a video released Thursday by the Russian Defense Ministry's press service, a Russian Malka artillery system fires from an undisclosed location in Ukraine.
In this handout photo, taken from a video released Thursday by the Russian Defense Ministry’s press service, a Russian Malka artillery system fires from an undisclosed location in Ukraine. (Photo: Press Service of the Russian Ministry of Defense via AP)

“The draft will not help that, so there will be no increase in the number of draftees,” state RIA Novosti news agency quoted Leonkov as saying.

Fighting around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhia plant is raising fears of a Chernobyl-like disaster in Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of firing.

It was not immediately clear whether the damaged line in Thursday’s incident carried outgoing or incoming electricity to run the plant, including the cooling system required for the reactors. Ukrainian officials said a backup power line using electricity from a second, non-nuclear plant remained connected and was in use.

The Russian-installed regional governor of Zaporizhia, Yevgeny Balitsky, claimed that the Ukrainian attack caused damage to the transmission line. Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency, Energotom, blamed “acts of aggressors”.

The incident apparently did not affect the reactors’ cooling systems – damage to which could lead to a meltdown – prompting fears of disaster.

“The situation is extremely dangerous,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “I am getting reports of forest fire near the power plant. We are yet to investigate the issue.”

Elsewhere on the battlefield, the deadly strike at a train station in Chaplin, a town of about 3,500 in central Dnipropetrovsk region, came as Ukraine braced for attacks related to a national holiday and the six-month mark of the war, which both fell. on wednesday

Kirill Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, did not say whether all of the 25 people killed were civilians. If they are, it will be one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in weeks. It is reported that 31 people were injured.

Witnesses said some of the victims, including at least one child, were burned in train cars or automobiles.

“Everything was covered in dust,” said Olena Budnik, a 65-year-old Chaplin resident. “There was a dust storm. We couldn’t see anything. We didn’t know where to run.”

A person holds a sign that reads, "The war in Ukraine is not over." People gather to mark Ukrainian Independence Day in Tel Aviv, Israel, in Habima Square, Wednesday.
A man holds a sign reading “The war in Ukraine is not over” in Habima Square as people gather to mark Ukrainian Independence Day in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday. (Photo: Ariel Shalit, Associated Press)

The dead included an 11-year-old boy found under the rubble of a house and a 6-year-old boy killed in a car fire near a train station, officials said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces used an Iskander missile to attack a military train carrying Ukrainian troops and equipment in eastern Ukraine. The ministry claimed that more than 200 reservists “died en route to the combat zone.”

The attack served as a painful reminder of Russia’s continued ability to endure mass suffering. Wednesday’s national holiday celebrates Ukraine’s 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.

Tetyana Kvitnytska, deputy head of the Dnipropetrovsk regional health department, said those injured in the train station attack suffered head injuries, broken limbs, burns and tail injuries.

After attacks in which civilians have died, the Russian government has repeatedly claimed that its forces only target legitimate military targets. Hours before the bloodshed at the train station, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted that the military was doing its best to save civilians, even at the cost of slowing down the aggression in Ukraine.

In April, a Russian missile attack on a train station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk killed more than 50 people as mostly women and children tried to flee the fighting. The attack was condemned as a war crime.

In Moscow on Thursday, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Dmitry Medvedev said Western hopes of a Ukrainian victory were futile and insisted the Kremlin would press home what he called a “special military operation”, leaving only two possible outcomes.

“All the objectives of a special military operation are being reached and Kiev recognizes this result,” Medvedev said on his messaging app channel. “The second is the identification of the consequences of the military coup in Ukraine and the subsequent special operations.”

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