Ukraine scorns Russian missile strikes, Bakhmut holds

Pavel Polityuk |

Russia has battered Ukraine with deadly hypersonic Kinzhal missiles in a major air strike.
Russia has battered Ukraine with deadly hypersonic Kinzhal missiles in a major air strike.

Russia’s first missile blitz on Ukrainian cities in weeks has been met with defiance and disgust over the targeting of civilians, while Ukrainian forces defending the eastern town of Bakhmut continue to thwart Russian attempts to break through.

The pre-dawn barrage on Thursday killed at least nine civilians and cut electricity supplies in several cities, but there was relief that the risk of a catastrophic meltdown at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant was averted as power was restored after a temporary disconnection from the Ukrainian grid. 

Ukraine said its air defences shot down many drones and missiles during the wave of attacks, but said the Russian forces also fired six Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missiles, which they have no way to stop.

Moscow confirmed it had used hypersonic Kinzhal – Russian for dagger – missiles in Thursday’s attack.

The mass strikes on targets far from the front were the first such wave since mid-February, breaking a lull in the air campaign against Ukraine’s civil infrastructure that Russia launched five months ago.

“The occupiers can only terrorise civilians. That’s all they can do,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. 

“But it won’t help them. They won’t avoid responsibility for everything they have done.”

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians. Its defence ministry said it had carried out a “massive retaliatory strike” as payback for a cross-border raid last week, and claimed to have hit all its intended targets, destroying drone bases, disrupting railways and damaging facilities that make and repair arms.

The missiles killed villagers in the western Lviv region, and closer to the frontline in the central Dnipro region, while Russian artillery also killed at least three people in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

Moscow said such hits were intended to reduce Ukraine’s ability to fight. Kyiv said the air strikes had no military purpose and aim to harm and intimidate civilians, a war crime.

The White House said the barrage was “devastating” to see and Washington would continue to provide Ukraine with air defence capabilities.

But, Russia is believed to have a few dozen Kinzhals, which fly many times faster than the speed of sound and are built to carry nuclear warheads with a range of more than 2000 kilometres. In his speeches, President Vladimir Putin regularly touts the Kinzhal as a weapon for which the transatlantic NATO alliance backing Kyiv has no answer.

The missile attacks briefly knocked out power to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, severing it from the grid and forcing it onto emergency diesel power to prevent a meltdown. It was later reconnected to Ukraine’s energy grid, operator Ukrenergo said.

The plant, which Russia has held since capturing it early in the war, is near the front line and both sides have warned in the past of a potential for disaster. Moscow said it was safe.

On the battlefield, the week has seen an apparent shift as Ukraine has decided to fight on in Bakhmut, a town that has borne the brunt of a Russian winter offensive in the bloodiest fighting of the war.

Moscow said Bakhmut is important as a step to securing the surrounding Donbas region, a major war aim. The West said the ruined city has little value and Russian forces are sacrificing lives to give Putin his only victory since sending hundreds of thousands of reservists into battle at the end of last year. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s Wagner private army which has led the fighting in Bakhmut, said on Wednesday his forces controlled all of the city east of a river through it.

Giving an update on the situation there, the Ukrainian military analyst Zhdanov, said defenders had foiled Russian attempts to completely surround Bakhmut from the west, and the frontline on the southern side had held for several days, while the enemy had made some headway in villages to the north.

Moscow, which claims to have annexed a fifth of Ukraine, says it launched its “special military operation” a year ago to combat a security threat. Kyiv and the West call it an unprovoked war to subdue an independent state.