Russia Steps Up Pace of Missile Attacks on Civilian Targets

Source: : 2022-07-02 15:44:08 : Valerie Hopkins, Marc Santora and Anatoly Kurmanaev

KYIV, Ukraine — An attack on a shopping mall on Monday, killing 19 civilians. A missile strike on a sleepy resort town on Friday, claiming the lives of at least 21 residents. A cluster bomb attack Saturday on a residential block of the eastern city of Sloviansk, leaving four dead.

The pace of Russia’s strikes on civilian targets, often with outdated and imprecise missiles, is picking up, Ukrainian and Western officials as well as Russian analysts say, as its forces run low on more sophisticated weapons in their struggle to make progress in the fifth month of the conflict.

Over 200 missiles were fired on Ukrainian government-controlled territory in the second half of June, more than double the number in the first half of the month, Ukrainian Brig. Gen. Oleksii Hromov said at a news conference on Thursday.

Some of the deadliest strikes of the war have occurred in the past week. In the shopping mall attack on Monday in the industrial city of Kremenchuk, Russia fired two Kh-class missiles. The same type of missile ripped into an apartment building in the Black Sea resort of Serhiivka on Friday.

Soviet Kh-class missiles, designed to attack ships, entered the country’s arsenal in the 1960s, prompting analysts to speculate about Russia’s decreasing ability to wage war with modern weapons.

The use of such weapons “to terrorize the Ukrainian cities from the air serves as yet more evidence of Russia’s falling stocks of long-range precision munitions,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst.

That assessment was echoed by the United Kingdom’s defense attaché, Mick Smeath, who on Saturday said the use of old anti-ship rockets pointed to Russia’s dwindling modern weapons.

The growing use of Kh-class missiles has coincided with rising estimates of Russian military casualties by Western intelligence agencies. The British defense chief, Ben Wallace, said this past week that 25,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in the war. That number, the highest estimate yet provided by a senior Western official, could not be independently confirmed. The most recent estimate by the Pentagon put Russian losses at 15,000.

Although casualty estimates vary, most Western officials and analysts agree that Russia will struggle to maintain the pace of its military operations in Ukraine at the current level of attrition.

“Moscow doesn’t want to end the war, but it needs to catch its breath to heal wounds and partly replenish its weapons stock,” Mr. Luzin said.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said Friday night that the Russian forces had lobbed more than 3,000 missiles at Ukraine in four months of the war.

More broadly, Ukrainian officials are warning that the sharp rise in civilian attacks could signal a new phase of the war, as Russia tries to make up for its shrinking military capacity with attempts to degrade Ukrainian morale.

“The Russians have moved to the concept of war where they want to create large-scale panic in Ukraine,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, told the Ukrainian television station Channel 24 on Saturday. He said Russia was doing it to pressure the Ukrainian government to cede territory in exchange for peace, allowing the Kremlin to claim victory.

Since the start of the war, Russia has maintained an increasingly untenable position that it fires only at military targets, and that any civilian facilities that have been hit had been co-opted by Ukraine for military use.

These claims have found resonance among the Russian people, many of whom are influenced by state-controlled television networks and conservative pro-war online commentators who bolster the party line.

In recent days the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has stepped up efforts to escape blame — particularly among the Russian public, many of whom have deep cultural and family ties to Ukraine — by portraying the bombardment of civilian targets as false flag operations by the Ukrainian government.

On Friday, for example, the Russian military claimed without evidence that the attack on Odesa, until recently a majority Russian-speaking city, was staged by paid actors. Rising attacks on civilian targets come as both sides claimed incremental military gains in recent days.

On Saturday, Russian-backed forces said they had captured the city of Lysychansk, the last city in the eastern Luhansk region that remained outside Russian control. That claim was strongly denied by a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Guard, who said Kyiv’s forces remained in control of both the city and a critical supply route despite heavy bombardment.

On the southern tip of the eastern front, Ukrainian forces continued a hit-and-miss counteroffensive that has brought them to within 20 miles of the city of Kherson, a provincial capital captured by Russia in the early days of the war.

A senior U.S. Defense Department official said this past week that the Ukrainians were not only taking back southern villages, but also showing an ability to hold retaken ground.

Ukraine’s military also claimed to have struck Russian military targets near Kherson on Friday. “Operating in pairs, our pilots struck ammunition depots, and a cluster of enemy troops and equipment” in Russian-held villages north of the city, the Southern Command said in a Facebook post.

Military analysts have attributed some of Ukraine’s incremental gains in the south to the steady flow of advanced Western weaponry to its military.

Recently, the first batch of U.S.-made multiple-rocket launchers, called High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, entered the battlefield. Armed with satellite-guided rockets, they have a range of more than 40 miles — greater than anything Ukraine had previously.

Still, only four of the launchers and their U.S.-trained crews have joined the fight, though four more are expected this month. Ukrainian officials say they need as many as 300 multiple-rocket launchers to combat Russia, which is firing several times as many rounds as Ukraine’s forces in the artillery-driven war of attrition.

Military analysts have cautioned that despite Ukrainian gains in the south, they are currently unable to mount a broad counteroffensive to seize the city of Kherson, where Russian defenders are well dug in — a sign of a protracted conflict ahead.

Valerie Hopkins reported from Kyiv, Marc Santora from Warsaw and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin. Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko in Tbilisi, Georgia, Daniel Victor in London and Eric Schmitt and John Ismay in Washington

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