Russia launched a barrage of missile strikes on Ukraine early on Saturday, stepping up hostilities a day after Ukrainian troops retreated from the embattled city of Severodonetsk.
As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine entered its fifth month, regional governors reported strikes on military bases in western Ukraine’s Lviv region, in Zhytomyr west of Kyiv, and Chernihiv north-west of the capital.
Officials said some missiles were intercepted by surface-to-air defence systems. Ukrainian and Russian military claims cannot be independently verified.
Early reports did not indicate that there were a high number of casualties, but Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration, said civilian targets had been hit.
Podolyak said in a tweet: “48 Russian cruise missiles. At night. Throughout the whole Ukraine.”
“Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, cause panic and make people be afraid of Z-monsters,” he added, referring to the use of the letter Z as a marking for some of Russia’s invading forces.
The strikes came just before Ukrainian officials said that most troops had withdrawn from Severodonetsk, provincial capital of the eastern Luhansk region. Nearby Lysychansk is the only remaining major city in the Luhansk region that has not fallen to Russian occupation. Ukraine still controls a few major western cities in the nearby Donetsk province, to the west of Lysychansk.
After failing to capture Kyiv and other major northern cities early in its invasion, Moscow has more recently focused its efforts on capturing ground in far eastern and southern coastal regions. It now controls 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory.
Throughout the conflict Russia has conducted near-daily missile strikes. More than 1,400 have been launched according to Ukrainian officials, targeting infrastructure and military installations as well as trying to stall the transport of heavy weapons from Kyiv’s western backers.
Russia has previously fired Iskander surface-to-surface missiles from Kremlin-allied Belarus, and Ukraine’s military intelligence said Saturday’s strikes were all fired from Belarus’s territory. That included 12 cruise missiles which were launched by Russian Tu-22M3 bombers from Minsk’s airspace, the first time this has happened according to Kyiv.
“Today’s missile attacks, all of them, were conducted overnight from the territory of Belarus . . . From the air and from the land,” Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s defence intelligence, said.
Early in the invasion Belarus allowed Russian forces to advance towards Kyiv from its territory but has not sent its own forces into Ukraine.
Budanov said Moscow is “again provoking us to attack Belarus” in order “to create a pretext” for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to join Russia’s invasion.
Russia was also plotting to conduct terrorist attacks in Belarus, Budanov said, blowing up houses, schools and hospitals as a false flag operation to be blamed on Kyiv.
Lukashenko “is trying to avoid this,” Budanov said, adding: “He understands how this will end for him.”