Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to press on with the invasion of Ukraine despite western criticism.
It comes as the Kremlin said it is up to Ukraine’s president to end the war – suggesting terms Kyiv has repeatedly rejected.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “(Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky knows when it may end. It may end tomorrow if he wishes so.”
The comments came as Ukrainian officials claimed Russian forces have installed multiple rocket launchers at Ukraine’s shut-down Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, raising fears Europe’s largest atomic power station could be used as a base to fire on Ukrainian territory and heightening radiation dangers.
Ukraine’s nuclear company Energoatom said in a statement that Russian forces occupying the plant have placed several Grad multiple rocket launchers near one of its six nuclear reactors. It said the offensive systems are located at new “protective structures” the Russians secretly built, “violating all conditions for nuclear and radiation safety”.
The claim could not be independently verified.
Mr Peskov spoke on Thursday as Russia freed American basketball star Brittney Griner in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, as the US released a Russian arms dealer.
Griner’s case had become a major inflection point in US-Russia diplomacy amid deteriorating relations prompted by the Ukraine war.
The Kremlin has long said Ukraine must accept Russian conditions to end the fighting, which is now in its 10th month.
It has demanded that Kyiv recognises Crimea — a Ukrainian peninsula which Moscow annexed in 2014 — as part of Russia and also recognises other land grabs by Moscow.
Mr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have repeatedly rejected those conditions, saying the war will end when the occupied territories are retaken or Russian forces leave them.
Mr Putin recognised on Wednesday the fighting in Ukraine “could be a lengthy process”. He described Moscow’s land gains as “a significant result for Russia”, saying the Sea of Azov “has become Russia’s internal sea”.
During a conference call with reporters, Mr Peskov said Moscow was not aiming to grab new lands. But he said Russia will make efforts to regain control of areas in Ukraine it withdrew from just weeks after incorporating them in hastily called referendums — which Ukraine and the west reject as illegal shams.
Last month, Russian troops left the city of Kherson and parts of the Kherson region, one of the four illegally annexed Ukrainian regions.
“There are occupied territories in several new regions of the Russian Federation that need to be liberated,” Mr Peskov said.
Mr Putin vowed on Thursday to achieve the declared goals in Ukraine regardless of western reaction.
“It’s enough for us to make a move and there is a lot of noise, chatter and outcry all across the universe,” he said. “It will not obstruct us from fulfilling combat tasks.”
He described a series of Russian strikes on Ukraine’s energy facilities and other key infrastructure as a legitimate response to a bombing attack on a key bridge linking Crimea with Russia’s mainland, and other attacks the Kremlin said were carried out by Ukraine. Mr Putin also cited Ukraine’s move to halt water supplies to the areas in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia.
“There is a lot of noise now about our strikes on the energy infrastructure,” Mr Putin said at a meeting with soldiers whom he decorated with the country’s top medals. “Yes, we are doing it. But who did start it? Who did strike the Crimean bridge? Who did blow up power lines linked to the Kursk nuclear power plant?”
Mr Putin particularly praised the Russian air force’s performance as “highly efficient”.
“The air force has done very well,” he said. “It has contributed significantly to the efficiency of the army’s action.”
Heavy fighting continued on Thursday, mostly in the regions annexed by Russia. Mr Zelensky’s office said 11 civilians were killed and a further 17 wounded in Ukraine on Wednesday.
The Donetsk region has been the epicentre of the recent fighting. Russian artillery attacks struck the centre of the town of Yampil, north east of Sloviansk, during the distribution of humanitarian aid to civilians, Ukrainian officials said.
Buildings in the city centre, in addition to the market and bus station, were damaged in the city of Kurakhove, west of the regional capital, Donetsk, officials said.
More than 10 cities and villages in the region were under shelling, including the town of Bakhmut, which has remained in Ukrainian hands during the war despite Moscow’s goal of capturing the entire Donbas region bordering Russia.
In other developments:
— The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced on Thursday its representatives visited Ukrainian prisoners of war on the Russian side. International observers were previously not permitted access to see them.
“Last week, the ICRC conducted a two-day visit to Ukrainian prisoners of war and another one is taking place this week. At the same time, visits to Russian prisoners of war took place,” the organisation said in a statement. The Red Cross checked the prisoners’ conditions, gave them books, personal hygiene products, blankets and warm clothes and contacted their relatives.
“We can check how prisoners of war are being treated and give their families the latest information. I expect these visits to initiate more regular access to all prisoners of war,” said ICRC president Mirjana Spoljaric without commenting or providing details on the treatment of prisoners.
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