KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia pounded Ukrainian towns with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with a strike that reportedly killed 25 people, as it moved on Friday to annex Ukrainian territory to Russia and placing it under the protection of Moscow’s nuclear umbrella, opening an internationally condemned phase of the seven month war.
But even as it prepared to celebrate the incorporation of four occupied Ukrainian regions, the Kremlin was about to suffer another crushing defeat on the battlefield. Russian and Western analysts have reported the impending Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern town of Lyman. Retaking the city could pave the way for Ukraine to sink deep into one of the regions Russia is absorbing in a move widely condemned as illegal.
The salvoes of Russian strikes reported in Ukrainian cities together represented the heaviest barrage Russia had unleashed in weeks. They followed analysts’ warnings that Russian President Vladimir Putin risked drawing more from his dwindling stockpiles of precision weapons and stepping up attacks as part of a strategy to escalate the war to an extent that would shatter Western support for Ukraine.
The Kremlin preceded its annexation ceremonies scheduled for Friday with another warning to Ukraine that it should not fight to retake the four regions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would view a Ukrainian attack on the taken territory as an act of aggression against Russia itself.
Annexations are Russia’s attempt to freeze its gains, at least on paper, and scare Ukraine and its Western supporters with the prospect of ever-escalating conflict unless they back down – which they show no sign of doing. The Kremlin paved the way for land grabs with “referendums,” sometimes at gunpoint, which Ukraine and its Western backers have universally dismissed as rigged shams.
“It looks quite pathetic. The Ukrainians are doing something, taking action in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building a kind of virtual reality, unable to respond in the real world,” the former editor said. Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov.
“People understand that politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “What is important is who advances and who retreats. In this sense, the Kremlin can offer nothing comforting to the Russians.
A recent Ukrainian counter-offensive backed by Western-supplied weapons has deprived Moscow of control of its destiny on the military battlefields. Its hold on the Luhansk region looks increasingly fragile as Ukrainian forces make inroads there, with the pincer assault on Lyman. Ukraine also still has a strong foothold in the neighboring region of Donetsk.
Luhansk and Donetsk – ravaged by fighting since separatists declared independence there in 2014 – form the wider Donbass region in eastern Ukraine that Putin has long vowed, but so far failed, to fully return. Russian. Peskov said Donetsk and Luhansk will be integrated into Russia in their entirety on Friday.
All of Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia, two other regions being prepared for annexation, were newly occupied in the opening phase of the invasion. It is not clear whether the Kremlin will declare all, or only part, of this occupied territory as belonging to Russia. Peskov did not say in a Friday call with reporters.
In the capital of the Zaporizhzhia region, anti-aircraft missiles that Russia reused as ground-attack weapons rained down on people Friday waiting in cars to drive through Russian-occupied territory to can bring family members back across the front lines, the deputy said the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko.
The attorney general’s office said 25 people were killed and 50 injured. The strike left deep impact craters and sent shrapnel into the lined up vehicles of the aid convoy, killing their passengers. The neighboring buildings were demolished. Trash bags, blankets and, for one victim, a blood-soaked towel, were used to cover the bodies.
Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces for the strike, but offered no evidence.
Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. Regional Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said at least one person was killed and five others injured when Russian Iskander missiles slammed into a transport company, destroying buses and damaging high-rise buildings.
The Ukrainian Air Force said the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odessa were also again being targeted by Iranian-supplied suicide drones that Russia has increasingly deployed in recent weeks, apparently to avoid losing more pilots who do not have control of the Ukrainian skies.
Putin was due to deliver a major speech at the Kremlin ceremony to integrate Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into Russia. The Kremlin planned for the region’s pro-Moscow administrators to sign annexation treaties in the ornate St. George Hall of the Moscow Palace that is Putin’s seat of power.
Putin also issued decrees recognizing the supposed independence of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, steps he had already taken in February for Lugansk and Donetsk and earlier for Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, called an emergency meeting of his National Security and Defense Council and denounced the latest barrage of Russian strikes.
“The enemy is raging and seeking revenge for our steadfastness and failures,” he posted on his Telegram channel. “You will certainly answer. For every Ukrainian life lost!
The United States and its allies have vowed to impose even more sanctions on Russia and offer billions of dollars in additional support to Ukraine as the Kremlin replicates the annexation playbook used for Crimea.
As Ukraine pledges to retake all occupied territories and Russia pledges to defend its gains and threatens to use nuclear weapons to do so, the two nations are increasingly on a collision course. escalation.
This was underscored by the fighting for the town of Lyman, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
A key node in Russian military operations in the disputed Donbass region, Lyman is a sought-after prize in the Ukrainian counter-offensive which has seen spectacular success since its launch in late August. Retaking the city could push Kyiv deeper into Russian-occupied Lugansk province, which would be a blow to Moscow after its “referendum” held there.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said the city’s fall to Ukrainian forces “is imminent” unless Russia can stave off collapse with rapid reinforcements, which seemed “highly unlikely”.
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