Russia launches biggest air strikes since start of Ukraine war
By Max Hunder and Jonathan Landay
KYIV (Reuters) -Russia rained cruise missiles on busy Ukrainian cities on Monday in what the United States called “horrific strikes”, killing civilians and knocking out power and heat with its most widespread air attacks since the start of the war.
Missiles tore into intersections, parks and tourist sites in the capital Kyiv and explosions were reported in Lviv, Ternopil and Zhytomyr in western Ukraine, Dnipro and Kremenchuk in the centre, Zaporizhzhia in the south and Kharkiv in the east.
Ukrainian officials said at least 11 people were killed and scores injured and suspended electricity exports to Europe while it tried to end blackouts across the country.
Thousands of residents raced to bomb shelters as air raid sirens rang out through the day. The barrage of dozens of cruise missiles fired from air, land and sea was the biggest wave of air strikes to hit away from the front line, at least since the initial volleys on the war’s first day, Feb. 24.
President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered “massive” long range strikes after an attack on the bridge linking Russia to the annexed Crimean peninsula over the weekend, and threatened more strikes in future if Ukraine hits Russian territory.
“To leave such acts without a response is simply impossible,” he said, alleging other, unspecified attacks on Russian energy infrastructure.
Ukrainian military intelligence said the Russian attacks were ordered in early October. “The objects of critical civil infrastructure and the central areas of densely populated Ukrainian cities were identified as targets,” it said.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said they were deliberately timed to kill people and knock out Ukraine’s power grid. His prime minister said 11 major infrastructure targets were hit in eight regions, leaving parts of the country with no electricity, water or heat.
“They are trying to destroy us and wipe us off the face of the earth,” Zelenskiy said.
The body of a man in jeans lay in a street at a major Kyiv intersection, surrounded by flaming cars. In a park, a soldier cut through the clothes of a woman who lay in the grass to try to treat her wounds. Two other women were bleeding nearby.
“These attacks killed and injured civilians and destroyed targets with no military purpose. They once again demonstrate the utter brutality of Mr. Putin’s illegal war on the Ukrainian people,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement.
The Kremlin was humiliated two days ago when a blast damaged the bridge it built after seizing Crimea in 2014. Ukraine, which views the bridge as a military target sustaining Russia’s war effort, celebrated the blast without claiming responsibility.
With troops suffering weeks of setbacks on the battlefield, Russian authorities have been facing the first sustained public criticism at home of the war, with commentators on state television demanding ever tougher measures.
Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. army forces in Europe, said the scale of the strikes suggested Russia’s plan to escalate may have been drawn up before the bridge was attacked.
On Saturday, Russia’s Defence Ministry named General Sergei Surovikin, who won acclaim in Syria, as commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. A Russian air campaign in Syria helped the government crush its enemies.
Monday’s blasts tore a huge crater next to a children’s playground in one of central Kyiv’s busiest parks. The remains of an apparent missile were buried, smoking in the mud.
More volleys of missiles struck the capital again later in the morning. Pedestrians huddled for shelter at the entrance of Metro stations and inside parking garages.
“This constitutes another unacceptable escalation of the war and, as always, civilians are paying the highest price,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, while its aid organization and others said their aid work in Ukraine had been disrupted.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the strikes “horrific” and he and Biden reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said in its evening update Russia had staged at least 84 missile and air strikes, and Ukraine’s air defences had destroyed 43 cruise missiles and 13 drones. Russia’s defence ministry said it had hit all its intended targets.
Security camera footage showed shrapnel and flames engulfing a glass-bottomed footbridge across a wooded valley in Kyiv’s centre, one of its most popular tourist sites. One pedestrian could be seen running from the blast. Reuters later saw a crater below the bridge which was damaged but still standing.
Zelenskiy said the strikes targeted energy infrastructure and people.
“Such a time and such targets were specially chosen to cause as much damage as possible,” he said in a video message filmed on a mobile phone on an empty central Kyiv street.
Prime Minister Denys Shmygal promised to restore utilities as quickly as possible. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted: “Putin is a terrorist who talks with missiles.”
Olena Somyk, 41, sheltered with her six-year-old daughter, Daria, in an underground garage with hundreds of people. She had fled the Russian-occupied southern city of Kherson, crossing Russia and Europe to get to Kyiv.
“Putin, she said, “is a small angry man, so we don’t know what more to expect”.
In another sign of possible escalation, Putin’s closest ally, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, said he had ordered troops to deploy jointly with Russian forces near Ukraine, which he accused of planning attacks on Belarus with its Western backers. Russia used Belarus as a staging ground early in the war but Lukashenko has not sent in his troops.
Within Russia, the strikes were cheered by hawks. Ramzan Kadyrov, the staunchly pro-Kremlin leader of Russia’s Chechnya region who had recently demanded that military commanders be sacked, wrote: “Now I am 100% satisfied with how the special military operation is being conducted.”
“We warned you Zelensky, that Russia hasn’t even got started yet, so stop complaining … and run!”
Russia has faced several setbacks since early September, with Ukrainian forces bursting through front lines and recapturing territory. Putin responded by ordering a mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of reservists, proclaiming the annexation of occupied territory and threatening repeatedly to use nuclear weapons.
(Reporting by Max Hunder, Jonathan Landay in Kyiv, Sergiy Chalyi in Zaporizhzhia and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Gareth Jones, Tomasz Janowski and Andrew Heavens)