US seeking drone defense for Ukraine; Russia may be planning retreat from Kherson, analysts say

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The Pentagon is looking at how to help Ukraine defend itself against the Iranian drones Russia is using to kill civilians and destroy infrastructure, White House spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

“I can't tell you today what that's going to look like, when we're going to be able to move additional air defense capabilities to Ukraine,” he said. “But I can assure you that (the Defense Department) is well aware of the threat and is working hard to see what they can do to help the Ukrainians deal with the threat.”

That includes working with allies with air defense capabilities that might be able to help, Kirby added.

Although Russia and Iran deny it, Kirby said Russia has received dozens of drones from Iran and will likely get more. Iran has also put a “relatively small numbers” of trainers and tech support in Crimea to show Russians how to use them, he said.

“Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground, and through the provision of weapons that are impacting civilians, and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” he said. “But the bottom line is, we don’t believe it’s going to change the course of the war.”

GRAPHICS: Mapping and tracking Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Other developments:

►Overnight attacks from Russian drones and missiles killed at least three civilians and wounded 14 across Ukraine, the president’s office said, adding that a school in the Zaporizhzhia province was struck early Thursday.

►A Russian fighter jet "released a missile" near an unarmed British aircraft in "international airspace" over the Black Sea, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Thursday. Wallace said Russia blamed the "potentially dangerous" missile release on a "technical malfunction." He said he does not consider the incident a deliberate escalation by Russia.

►Russian President Vladimir Putin's declaration of martial law in four illegally annexed regions of Ukraine – a move denounced internationally – "speaks to his desperation" as Ukrainian forces make continued progress, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with ABC’s "Good Morning America" released Wednesday.

►The U.S. Department of Justice has charged nearly a dozen people, including five Russian nationals, in two separate schemes to illegally supply U.S. military technology to Russia. Some of the equipment was recovered from battlefields in Ukraine while the other was intercepted in Latvia, the department said.

►Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Thursday backed a decision by his predecessor to cancel an agreement to buy 16 Russian military heavy-lift helicopters and said his administration has “secured an alternative supply from the United States.'' Philippine officials feared Western sanctions if they went through with the Russian deal.

UKRAINE PROGRESS: Ukraine regains more territory in east and south as counteroffensives continue

Ukrainians priming to retake Kherson – and Russia may let them, experts say

There are increasing signs that Ukrainian forces are getting ready to launch an offensive to reclaim considerably more territory in the southern Kherson province, including its namesake capital. If so, they might not encounter major resistance.

The ongoing evacuation of about 60,000 residents from Kherson city and recent comments from Russian officials indicate they expect to concede that land, according to military experts.

Citing Russian commander Sergei Surovikin's assessment about the "difficult situation'' in the region, the British Defense Ministry said it's likely "Russian authorities are seriously considering a major withdrawal of their forces from the area west of the Dnipro River.'' That's where the port city of Kherson, taken by the invading forces in March, is located.

The Kremlin may actually be priming the public to expect to lose Kherson, hoping to avoid the shock that came with the Russian retreat from the Kharkiv province in the north, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said.

Moscow also appears to be planning a "false flag'' attack on the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant farther up the river partly to distract from its troops' withdrawal, the institute said, echoing a warning from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday.

"Russian authorities likely intend these warnings about a purported Ukrainian strike on the Kakhovka HPP to set information conditions for Russian forces to damage the dam and blame Ukraine for the subsequent damage and loss of life, all while using the resulting floods to cover their own retreat further south into Kherson Oblast,'' the institute said.

Italy's Berlusconi seems to support Putin in secretly recorded comments

A rekindling of Silvio Berlusconi's warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the former Italian prime minister's apparent defense of the Ukraine invasion – recorded secretly – have raised questions about whether the new government in Italy will stick with the EU's condemnation of Putin's war.

Berlusconi, 86, leads the center-right Forza Italia party, a significant component of the coalition the presumptive new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, will need to govern. He's also a longtime icon of Italian politics and a media mogul.

At a time when the West is trying to isolate Putin for his ruthless attack on Ukraine, Berlusconi is heard on an audio tape published this week by the Italian media boasting about getting 20 bottles of vodka and a "sweet letter'' from Putin for his birthday last month and saying he sent Italian wine and a similar note to his longtime friend in return.

More damning yet, Berlusconi appears to blame Ukraine for the war, telling members of his party he was told the Ukrainian government had killed 5,000-7,000 people in the eastern Donbas region – which has substantial pro-Kremlin population – forcing Putin to intervene.

“He is under heavy pressure from the entire Russia,'' Berlusconi is heard saying. "So he decides to invent a special operation: The troops were supposed to enter Ukraine, reach Kyiv in a week, depose the incumbent government, Zelenskyy and so on, and install a government already chosen by the Ukrainian minority ... and then leave the following week.”

Berlusconi has not denied those were his words, but accused the media of “distorted and frankly ridiculous interpretations on my thought” on Russia and Ukraine.

Ukrainians 'forced' into rolling blackouts

Ukrainians were preparing for rolling blackouts starting Thursday as Russia continues attacking the country's energy infrastructure, utility officials said.

Amid Russian missile strikes on power stations, Ukraine has launched a power-saving campaign, asking residents to reduce electricity usage. The country's energy company, NPC Ukrenergo, make the announcement Wednesday as it called for "understanding and support."

"This is a forced move," the utility company said as it pointed out the Russians have done more damage to the energy system since Oct. 10 than in the previous 7½ months of war.

NPC Ukrenergo urged residents to make sure their phones and power banks were charged and to keep flashlights, warm socks and blankets on hand. Ukrainians have also been stocking up on candles, canned goods, bottled water and warm clothes ahead of winter.

"We will do everything possible to restore the normal energy capabilities of our country," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday. "But it takes time. And this requires our joint efforts."

Ukrainian energy official Oleksandr Kharchenko said about 40% of the country's power system has been severely damaged. Zelenskyy said Russian forces have destroyed 30% of Ukraine’s power stations since Oct. 10.

Russian shelling knocked out power and water service in Enerhodar, the southern city by the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Missiles also severely damaged an energy facility near Kryvyi Rih, Zelenskyy's hometown in south-central Ukraine.

EU agrees on sanctions against Iran for supplying drones to Russia

Members of the European Union have agreed on new sanctions against Iran after the country was accused of supplying drones to Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, the Czech presidency of the EU announced Thursday.

"After 3 days of talks, EU ambassadors agreed on measures against entities supplying Iranian drones that hit Ukraine," the presidency said on Twitter, adding that the sanctions were to be enacted Thursday afternoon.

In a Wednesday interview with Canada's CTV, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Iran of taking "blood money" from Russia to supply its forces with drones used in deadly attacks.

"They publicly denied all that, saying that we didn’t sell anything, but here we see," he said. "Hundreds of strikes. At Ukraine, at the capital, at civil infrastructure, at schools, nearby the university, at the university and the shutting down of our energy system."

Russia has rebranded the drones and denied acquiring them from Iran, which also rejected the notion it had sold them to Moscow.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement that the U.S. had "abundant evidence" Iran was supplying Russia with drones in violation of a U.N. resolution.

Ukrainian 'I want to live' hotline draws more than 3,000 Russian calls

Thousands of Russians are responding to Ukraine's encouragement to surrender instead of fighting in the war, organizers of the so-called “I want to live” hotline say.

The line and a Telegram chatbot were set up by the Ukrainian military in mid-September, shortly after Ukraine reclaimed part of the northern Kharkiv province and around the time when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a civilian mobilization. More than 3,000 people have called the line since, according to organizers.

“We had the cases of Russians calling us when they weren’t drafted yet,” project spokesperson Vitalii Matvienko told the Associated Press. “Now there are more calls from recently drafted soldiers.”

Matvienko said word of the hotline has gotten out despite Russia blocking the project's website, and that calls increase with Ukrainian counteroffensives. Some of the callers are crying and afraid of being drafted, Matvienko said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine: US seeking drone defense; rolling blackouts near