More than 80 Russian missiles and a small number of drones exploded across Ukraine on Thursday, targeting residential buildings and critical infrastructure, killing six people and leaving hundreds of thousands without heat or electricity.
The biggest such attack in three weeks put Europe’s biggest nuclear plant at risk by knocking it off the power grid for hours before reconnecting. Since nuclear plants require constant power to run cooling systems to avoid meltdown, the latest threat to the Zaporozhzhia plant raised the specter of a nuclear catastrophe again.
Air raid sirens sounded throughout the night as attacks targeted a wide swath of the country, including western Ukraine, which is far from the front lines. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack, which occurred while many people were asleep, was “another attempt by a terrorist state to wage war against civilization.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said the attacks were in retaliation for an alleged incursion a week earlier in western Russia’s Bryansk region by what Moscow claimed were Ukrainian saboteurs. Ukraine denied the claim and warned that Moscow could use the allegations to justify its own attacks.
The Kremlin’s forces began targeting Ukraine’s electricity supply last October in an apparent attempt to disarm the civilian population and force Kiev into peace talks on Moscow’s terms. Later attacks began to subside and analysts speculated that Russia may have run out of ammunition. The last major bombardment took place on 16 February.
The head of the UN nuclear watchdog said all external power to the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant was cut for 11 hours after the last remaining power line was cut following reports of missile strikes. Rafael Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency stressed that the incident “showed again how fragile and dangerous the situation is for the plant”.
In total, Russia launched 81 missiles and eight explosive martyr drones on Thursday, according to Valery Zaluzny, chief commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. He said 34 cruise missiles and four drones were intercepted. Military analysts say the mix of ammunition makes it difficult for air defenses to withstand attack.
The weapons included six hypersonic Kinzhal cruise missiles, which are among the most sophisticated weapons in the Russian arsenal, said Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian air force. Ukraine says its air defense system cannot stop them.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the barrage targeted military and industrial targets in Ukraine as well as energy facilities supplying them.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told The Associated Press that the missile attacks did not affect the military’s combat capability, but that they played “on the nerves of Ukraine’s civilian population”.
Ukraine ‘will not be in chains’: Zelensky
In his evening video address to the nation, Zelensky struck a defiant tone.
“We have already shown what Ukraine is capable of,” he said. “And no matter how treacherous Russia’s actions may be, our state and people will not be in chains. Neither missiles nor Russian tyranny will help them.”
Local officials said nearly half of homes in Kiev were without heat, as was Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where water was also cut on a day when outdoor temperatures were expected to drop to around freezing.
About 150,000 homes were left without power in the northwestern Zhytomyr region of Ukraine. Damaged power lines caused an emergency blackout in the southern port of Odessa.
Viktor Bukhta, a 57-year-old resident of Kiev’s Svyatoshinsky district, where officials said three people were injured, said a missile hit nearby in the early morning.
“We went to the yard. People were injured,” he said. “Then the cars caught fire. We tried to put them out with the car’s fire extinguishers. And I got a little burnt.”
‘Throw a dice’ at a nuclear plant
Grossi, the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said he was “astonished by the satisfaction” of the organization’s members with regard to the threats faced by the Zaporizhzhia plant.
Grossi asked the agency’s board of directors at a meeting Thursday, “What are we doing to prevent this from happening? We are the IAEA. We are made to take care of nuclear safety.”
“Every time we’re rolling a dice,” he said. “And if we allow this to continue time after time, our luck will one day run out.”
Grossi and others have called for demilitarization of the plant, including the withdrawal of Russian troops.
The Kremlin, which says its troops are needed to protect the plant, has rejected the idea. Speaking at the IAEA meeting in Vienna, Russian envoy Mikhail Ulyanov said Moscow supports measures to prevent attacks against the plant. He challenged Kiev to pledge not to open the facility.
Russia and Ukraine have long accused each other of shelling the Zaporozhzhia plant.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that the attack “had no military purpose, just Russian vandalism.”
Smoke could be seen billowing from a facility in Kiev’s Holosivsky district and police have closed all roads leading to it.
Lviv Governor Maxim Kojitsky said three men and two women were killed after a missile hit a residential area in the Lviv region. He said three buildings were destroyed by the fire and rescuers were searching through the rubble for more possible victims.
Governor Serhiy Lysak said a sixth person was killed and two others wounded in the Dnipropetrovsk region in a series of attacks that targeted its energy infrastructure and industrial facilities.
In addition to the barrage of missiles, Russian shelling killed six other civilians from Wednesday to Thursday, Ukrainian officials said, including three people at a bus stop in Kherson.
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