Crimean airbase damage worse than Russia claims, satellite images show

Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Russian forces killed at least 13 civilians and wounded 11 others in a missile attack in southern Ukraine, a senior Ukrainian military official said on Wednesday, in an escalation of fighting around a key nuclear power plant held by Moscow.

The Russians used Grad missiles in the attack on the Nikopol district, across the Dnipro river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, according to the head of the Dnipropetrovsk military administration, Valentyn Reznichenko. He said the Russians fired 80 rockets at residential neighborhoods, damaging apartment buildings, administrative buildings and infrastructure, and leaving 1,000 people without gasoline.

Russian forces launched a “deliberate and insidious attack as people slept at home,” Reznichenko wrote on the social messaging app Telegram. He said 10 residents were hospitalized, seven of them in serious condition.

In his Wednesday night address, President Volodymr Zelensky said Ukraine would not leave the “Russian bombardment of the Dnipropetrovsk region unanswered”.

Credit…State Emergency Service of Ukraine, via Reuters

In recent weeks, Russia has strengthened its positions in Kherson province, which borders Dnipropetrovsk, and has targeted a series of missile attacks there and on neighboring provinces. According to Ukrainian officials, these attacks included shelling directed at Nikopol from the Zaporizhzhia factory, which Russian forces seized in March shortly after invading Ukraine in February.

It was unclear whether the overnight attack originated from the grounds of the nuclear plant. On Saturday, rocket fire hit a dry spent fuel storage facility at the plant itself. Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for the episode, prompting the head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Rafael Mariano Grossi, to express his “serious concern” and renew his calls for an inspection form of the central.

The Ukrainian authorities, as well as independent military and nuclear experts, say that the transformation of the plant, the largest in Europe, into a combat zone is almost unprecedented. They also say Russia’s use of the site as a base from which to launch attacks offers a tactical advantage, given that it is extremely difficult for Ukraine to retaliate without jeopardizing the plant’s reactors.

On Wednesday, foreign ministers of the Group of Seven major industrialized democracies, meeting in Germany, issued a statement demanding that Russia withdraw its forces from Ukraine and immediately return control of the nuclear complex to Ukraine. The statement blames Russia’s military actions around the plant for having “significantly increased the risk of a nuclear accident or incident”, endangering the entire region.

Fighting in the south intensifies as Ukrainian forces receive an influx of long-range artillery from the United States and other Western nations, increasing its ability to hit Russian military infrastructure far behind front lines. A Ukrainian official said Ukrainian forces were responsible for an explosion on Tuesday at a Russian air base on the west coast of Crimea, the peninsula Moscow illegally seized in 2014, but said a weapon made national had been used in the attack.

Ukrainian forces also attempted to mount a counteroffensive in Kherson province, aiming to retake the provincial capital, the city of Kherson, located more than 100 miles downriver from the nuclear power plant.

Russia’s attacks in the south appear to be aimed, in part, at increasing pressure on the Ukrainian military given the counteroffensive, but they also fit a larger pattern established since the start of the war of raining down fire on civilian areas. Moscow denies targeting civilians.

In early July, Russian forces captured the last town in Luhansk province in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region after a heavy artillery barrage and street fighting that lasted for weeks. Since then, however, their advance into Donetsk Province has slowed, and overall both sides have suffered heavy casualties in over five months of fighting.

A British military intelligence report said Wednesday that in response to its losses, Russia had most likely established a major new formation of ground forces, the 3rd Army Corps, based east of Moscow. But the new formation is “unlikely to be decisive for the campaign” in Ukraine, according to the report, and could struggle to attract enough recruits due to limited public support for the war effort.

“Russian commanders most likely continue to face competing operational priorities of strengthening the Donbass offensive and strengthening defenses against planned Ukrainian counterattacks in the south,” the report said.

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