April 16, 2024

Zelensky, Volodymyr

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An explosion is seen in the sky over Kyiv during a Russian missile strike on May 16, 2023.

One after another, bright flashes pierced through Kyiv’s night skies early on Tuesday morning, as Russia launched an “exceptional” aerial assault against the Ukrainian capital.

Most Kyiv residents would have had no way of knowing for sure that the sudden, terrifying loud bangs were the Ukrainian air defense systems taking down Russian missiles, rather than rockets hitting their city.

Liudmyla Kravchenko, her husband and their two children spent most of the night hiding in their corridor.

“There’s no bomb shelter nearby, the underground station is quite far from us … I think it’s even more dangerous to try to get there during the bombardment,” she told CNN.

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Kravchenko said that while her family doesn’t always take shelter during air raid alarms, last night was different. “It was very scary, so after we heard the first explosions we rushed to the corridor … of course in case the missile hits our house directly, none of this will save our lives – not two walls, not three, not even five,” she said, pointing to the guidance that people unable to reach shelters should stay inside and try to be separated from a potential impact zone by two walls.

She said her one year old son Artem slept in her arms as they were waiting for the attack to end. Her nine-year-old daughter is now so used to air raids that she knows to “to drop everything and take cover” when her parents tell her to.

Liudmyla Kravchenko said her family hid in the corridor during the attack on Tuesday.

Liudmyla Kravchenko said her family hid in the corridor during the attack on Tuesday.Yulia Kesaieva/CNN

“My wife counted over 30 explosions and we saw dozens of launches by the Ukrainian air defense from our balcony. It was so fast, we didn’t even have time to get to a shelter,” Tymofiy Mylovanov, a presidential adviser and head of the Ukrainian School of Economics, said on Twitter.

Serhiy Popko, head of Kyiv’s military administration, said in a Telegram post that the barrage of missiles on Tuesday was the eighth assault on the Ukrainian capital this month. He said the attack came from multiple directions and was “exceptional in its density, with the maximum number of attacking missiles in the shortest time possible.”

Despite the intensity, most of the Russian munitions failed to hit their marks after being detected and destroyed by Ukraine’s defense systems, Popko added.

The falling debris caused some – although limited – damage on the ground. At least three people were injured, according to Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko. Authorities said early reports of damage were minor, with a building and several vehicles catching fire from falling debris in one area of the capital.

Klitschko said some debris fell within the grounds of the Kyiv Zoo, damaging some green spaces but not causing any injuries to the animals. The mayor added the zoo would be open as normal on Tuesday.

Air defenses hard at work

Ukrainian Armed Forces chief Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi said the attack, which started at about 3:30 a.m. local time, was launched from the north, south, and east.

“Six Kh-47M2 Kinzhal aeroballistic missiles were fired from six MiG-31K aircraft, nine Kalibr cruise missiles from ships in the Black Sea, and three land-based missiles (S-400, Iskander-M),” Zaluzhnyi said on Twitter, adding that Moscow also launched attack drones, all of which were destroyed.

While the Ukrainian military refused to comment on the type of weapons it used on Tuesday, two US officials and a Western official familiar with the matter told CNN that Ukrainian forces have begun using long-range Storm Shadow missiles provided by the UK to strike Russian targets.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed later on Tuesday that it destroyed a US-made Patriot air defense system in Kyiv on Tuesday – despite the Ukrainians saying all 18 Russian missiles launched at the country in the early hours of Tuesday morning were intercepted and destroyed.

The Ukrainian military has declined to comment on the claim by the Russian Defense Ministry.

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But a US official later told CNN that a US-made Patriot system was likely damaged, but not destroyed, as a result of Monday’s Russian missile barrage.

The US is still assessing to what degree the system was damaged, the official said, adding that will determine whether the system needs to be pulled back entirely or simply repaired on the spot by the Ukrainians.

storm shadow cruise missile 022823

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Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense, said on Telegram that Tuesday marked “another unbelievable success for the Ukrainian Air Forces” with all six of the Kinzhal missiles shot down.

“Thank you to our Air Force service members and our partner states, who invested in securing the skies over Ukraine and all of Europe,” he said.

Kyiv resident Oleksandr Kravets, 50, said he saw the air defenses work first hand on Tuesday.

“I live on the 13th floor … I saw the missile wreckage falling. Our air defense are real heroes. I think they get better each month, the percentage of downed targets increases each time. I think it’s both – the experience and the new air defense systems we got,” he told CNN.

Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin have repeatedly talked up the hypersonic Kinzhal missiles for their ability to evade Ukraine’ original air defense systems.

However, that has changed since Ukraine received at least two US-made Patriot missile defense systems, one from Germany and one from the US, making it possible for Ukraine to intercept more modern Russian missiles such as the Kinzhal.

Earlier in May, Ukrainian and US officials said Russia had tried to destroy a Patriot battery with a Kinzhal air-launched ballistic-missile strike, but Ukraine Patriot operators were able to intercept the Russian weapon.

The Patriot systems, coupled with Ukraine’s other air defense systems, have been able to deal with most of what Russia has challenged them with in recent months – but Ukraine has been warning that its ammunition stocks are getting depleted.

Last week the Ukrainian capital was targeted by what Klitschko called Russia’s “most massive” drone attack, in which 36 Iranian-made Shahed were fired on the city. All 36 were intercepted and damage from falling debris was light, the mayor said.

An explosion is seen in the sky over Kyiv during a Russian missile strike on May 16, 2023.Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ukrainian intelligence claims

The strikes on Kyiv came a day after Ukrainian intelligence claimed Russian forces are no longer capable of large-scale offensive action and faced a shortage of some missiles, such as the Kalibr.

However, Ukrainian Defense Intelligence spokesperson Andriy Yusov said Moscow still had enough missiles to sustain its current rate of air attacks.

He estimated Moscow has large stockpiles of S-300 missiles, which are capable of considerable destruction. The S-300 was designed as an anti-air weapon but Russia has frequently used it in a ground-to-ground mode, which makes it less accurate.

Volodymyr Zelensky attends a press conference in Rome on Saturday.

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Ahead of a much anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, Yusov said Russia “is on the defensive” along “the entire front line” and lacked the resources “to repeat large-scale offensive actions.”

“They have been preparing for defense all this time, and this is a serious factor that the Ukrainian command certainly takes into account when preparing for the de-occupation of Ukrainian territories,” he said.

In recent days, Ukraine’s military says it has gained an advantage in some areas near the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, but officials have been reluctant to provide specific dates for when the counteroffensive will begin.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in England Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kyiv is “preparing very important counteroffensive steps.”

“We really need some more time,” he said, but added: “Not too much.”

Ukraine, in the meantime, has trained new formations, armed and equipped by the West, and is expected to launch a broader counteroffensive somewhere along the roughly 600-mile front line.

An aerial view of the devastated and mostly abandoned city of Bakhmut, with high-rise buildings partially destroyed and charred, their windows blown out, and rubble strewn between them.
A drone image of the destruction in Bakhmut taken on Friday while embedded with the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Army.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
An aerial view of the devastated and mostly abandoned city of Bakhmut, with high-rise buildings partially destroyed and charred, their windows blown out, and rubble strewn between them.

This has Russia in somewhat of a defensive crouch, its forces stretched, as they build fortifications and prepare for the war’s next phase.

“We’ll probably see more localized tactical assaults,” Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said of Russian forces. “But Russia will likely primarily focus on defense and prepare for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.”

Russian forces have spent much of the winter and spring digging in and preparing for Ukraine to strike, though some units have continued to attack in areas such as Kreminna north of Bakhmut and Avdiivka to the south. Those assaults have gained the Russians little ground, and instead have decimated the population centers in their path while depleting their own ranks.

In the south, which some military analysts predict will be the focus of Ukraine’s offensive, Russian forces have dug an intricate network of primary and secondary trench lines and minefields to thwart any Ukrainian advance, according to satellite photos and analysts.

If Ukraine does manage to retake territory, analysts say, that could give Russia’s far larger air force an upper hand as Ukrainian troops push forward, outside the range of their air defenses.

Further to the southwest, Ukraine now holds the southern port city of Kherson after reclaiming it in November. But with the Dnipro River serving as a natural boundary, Russian artillery units can shell the city from the eastern side with little risk of being overrun by Ukrainian ground forces, given the difficulty of crossing a wide, exposed waterway.


Two Ukrainian soldiers in combat fatigues, one of them holding a mortar shell in each hand, crouch behind a mortar.
Members of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade firing an 82-mm mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Two Ukrainian soldiers in combat fatigues, one of them holding a mortar shell in each hand, crouch behind a mortar.

To the north, Ukrainian-backed proxy units have penetrated the Russian border in recent days, seizing a small patch of territory in what is considered a propaganda move to tie up Russian forces and embarrass the Kremlin following the seizure of Bakhmut.

But the battle for Bakhmut came at a significant cost for Russia and Ukraine and will weigh heavily on what comes next. Both sides made outsize investments in men and matériel to take and hold a relatively small and now-devastated city, which had a prewar population of more than 70,000.

Such is the nature of the 15-month-old war: Both militaries, still rooted in Soviet-style tactics, continue to rely heavily on artillery, tanks and limited troop advances to seize and control ground.

“The battle for Bakhmut is less important in terms of territory and more in its impact on both forces and what it reveals about them,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington,

Russian forces were defeated on three fronts last year — around Kyiv, in the northeastern Kharkiv region and at Kherson. Moscow is nursing its exhausted and casualty-ridden formations after brutal urban combat in Bakhmut. Ukraine, too, is plagued by casualties, but is digging in along far more favorable and higher terrain outside Bakhmut.


Two women carrying shopping bags walk past a damaged bus stop with sandbags piled around it.
Women at a sandbagged bus stop damaged by Russian shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson this month. Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

In recent days, Ukrainian forces have made small gains to the north and south of Bakhmut, putting their forces in a better position to prevent Russian troops from advancing further. The head of the Wagner paramilitary force, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, whose fighters were primarily responsible for the seizure of Bakhmut, has pledged to pull them from the city and turn its defense over to Russia’s uniformed ranks, risking a disorganized turnover of troops.

Wagner “isn’t really designed for defensive operations,” Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner group has proved to be one of Ukraine’s most formidable foes and it remains unclear how its departure from the battlefield could affect Ukraine’s ability to put pressure on Bakhmut and beyond.

Military analysts, Western intelligence agencies and Ukrainian officials have argued over the strategic significance of the Bakhmut campaign for months. Moscow could have invested the resources elsewhere on the front line instead of wasting lives and ammunition for a few miles of land, they said. Kyiv could have retreated earlier, saving its battalions, brigades and supplies for future offensives.

Both sides’ decisions to stand and fight will have lasting effects on their future maneuvers.


Across an open field bounded by trees and a fence, a plume of thick smoke rises to the sky.
Smoke rising near Bakhmut last week. Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Across an open field bounded by trees and a fence, a plume of thick smoke rises to the sky.

The battle for Bakhmut was unique in that the Wagner group relied on formations of prison inmates to attack Ukrainian trenches, to both overwhelm their defenses and expose Ukraine’s firing positions. Russia’s ability to replenish its ranks, often with undertrained forces, had at one point been one of its advantages as it has forced Ukraine to risk its better-trained units to stop raw troops the Russians treated as expendable.

But Ukraine fought back, despite losing ground in the city and taking an outsized number of casualties. They took advantage of the open fields and tree lines on the outskirts, and used Western-supplied precision artillery such as HIMARS rocket launchers and 155-mm howitzers to wound and kill Russian troops at a distance.

Now, Moscow has to decide whether to try to advance west of Bakhmut. A few miles away lies the town of Chasiv Yar, but Ukraine can pull back to high ground in between, where it could fire down at advancing Russian troops. More likely, the Russians will focus on defending Bakhmut and its approaches.

The aftershocks of the battle for Bakhmut are not yet fully known, both in terms of overall casualties on both sides or how much equipment or ammunition was lost or destroyed. Western estimates early this year put Russia’s casualties in wounded and dead at about 200,000 since its invasion, and Ukraine’s are thought to be similar. The fight for Bakhmut has since claimed thousands more casualties.

“This chapter will close, even as fighting continues in the fields outside the city, but it speaks volumes about the Ukrainian will to fight, though soldiers may wonder whether the fight for Bakhmut was driven by political considerations over military ones,” Mr. Kofman said.A tall pile of bricks and other debris lies behind an open gate, where bombardment struck a school, with badly damaged buildings on either side.

A school hit by bombardment in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, near Bakhmut, last month.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
A tall pile of bricks and other debris lies behind an open gate, where bombardment struck a school, with badly damaged buildings on either side.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Ukraine correspondent and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff

A top Ukrainian official essentially acknowledged that the devastated city had been lost. Thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers died there, but the cost for Moscow was especially steep, experts say.Russia Claims Bakhmut, but Some See a ‘Pyrrhic Victory’