Russia indicated Friday, Oct.14, repairs to the Crimea bridge could take months after an explosion on the key supply link that sparked a barrage of retaliatory missile strikes on Ukraine.

Nearly eight months into Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine, Kyiv’s emboldened military was celebrating Defender’s Day while a UN envoy claimed Russia’s forces were using rape as a weapon.

Those celebrations come after pro-Kremlin authorities in the southern Kherson region pleaded with Moscow for help evacuating civilians in the face of an advancing Ukrainian counter-offensive.

At the same time, Russian-backed forces in the east have announced they are inching closer to the Ukraine-held down of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described the explosion on the Crimea bridge last week as a terrorist act and in retaliation battered Ukraine for two days with missiles that hit energy facilities and caused blackouts and disruption to water supplies.

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Russia’s cabinet, in a decree signed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, ordered the company tasked with the “design and restoration of destroyed elements of the transport and engineering infrastructure of the Crimean Bridge” to complete the work by July 1, 2023.

The date for work to be completed gives an indication of the extent of the damage caused by an explosion at the bridge last Saturday, and officials in Moscow have been circumspect about the lasting impact of the incident.

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Ukraine ‘will definitely win

They did however say hours after the blast — blamed on Ukraine special forces — that both road and rail traffic had been restored.

The bridge is logistically crucial for Moscow — a vital transport link for moving military equipment to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

It is also symbolically important to Putin, who inaugurated the bridge in 2018 several years after he annexed the peninsula from Ukraine to a chorus of Western condemnation.

In Kyiv Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed that Ukrainian forces would be victorious over Russian forces during events marking the country’s first Defender’s Day celebrations.

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He also laid a wreath at a memorial for soldiers killed since 2014, when Kremlin-backed separatists wrested control of two eastern regions and appealed in February for Russia to intervene.

“The world is with us, more than ever. This makes us stronger than ever in history,” he added in reference to unprecedented Western aid.

Ukrainian forces mounted a counter-offensive in the south towards the end of the summer and have been pushing closer and closer to the main city in the Kherson region, also called Kherson.

On Friday, Moscow-installed authorities of the region renewed a call for residents to temporarily leave, with reports that Ukrainian forces have been gaining ground near Kherson.

Advance on Kherson

“The bombardments of the Kherson region are dangerous for civilians,” Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the pro-Russian regional administration said, calling on residents to take a trip for “rest and recreation” elsewhere.

But in the east, pro-Russian forces said they were closing in on the industrial city of Bakhmut after they reported the capture of two villages on the city’s outskirts this week.

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An official of the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic, a breakaway region in east Ukraine, said “active hostilities were underway” within Bakhmut.

“Our forces are confidently marching and liberating this settlement,” the official, Andriy Marochko, was quoted as saying by Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.

Also this week, UN envoy Pramila Patten told AFP in an interview that rapes and sexual assaults attributed to Moscow’s forces in Ukraine are part of a Russian “military strategy” and a “deliberate tactic to dehumanise the victims”.

“When you hear women testify about Russian soldiers equipped with Viagra, it’s clearly a military strategy,” the UN special representative on sexual violence said Thursday. “It is clearly a deliberate tactic to dehumanise the victims.”

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