Russia Attacks Ukraine With Major Missile Barrage as Combat Intensifies

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia targeted Ukraine’s already battered infrastructure with more than 100 drones, rockets and missiles on Friday, raining explosives on cities around the country as President Volodymyr Zelensky returned from a three-day trip across Europe to ask Ukraine’s allies to send more weapons, and faster.

The strikes, the first heavy aerial barrage in weeks, came as fighting on the ground intensified, in what Ukrainian officials were calling a new winter offensive.

Russia has been pouring troops and equipment into eastern Ukraine, in the first stage of what Ukrainian and Western officials say will be a major push to swallow up more of the Donbas region before Kyiv can field more powerful armaments from the West and mount its own offensive.

The fighting has been especially heavy around the Russian-occupied city of Kreminna and the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, about 30 miles apart in the Donbas, the mineral-rich region in the country’s east where separatists had waged a yearslong campaign to break away from Ukraine before the invasion.

Russia has made small tactical gains over the past week, amid intense combat and heavy casualties on both sides, military analysts said, but as of Friday there was no evidence of a major breakthrough.

The Ukrainian air force described Friday’s aerial assault as a “massive attack” and said that it had involved 71 cruise missiles, seven Iranian-made drones and about 35 S-300 missiles, antiaircraft missiles that Russia has taken to using against targets on the ground. Ukraine said in a statement that it had shot down 61 of the cruise missiles and five of the drones, but it does not have the capability to intercept the S-300.

“Their targets were civilians, civilian infrastructure,” Mr. Zelensky, who was traveling back to Ukraine after a stop in Poland, said in a video statement. He added: “This is terror that can and must be stopped — stopped by the world.”

Ukrainian officials said that two of the Russian missiles, fired from ships in the Black Sea, had crossed the airspace of Romania, which is a NATO country, and Moldova, which is not, on their way to Ukraine. Romania rejected the claim that its airspace had been violated, which would have risked inflaming tensions between NATO and Moscow.

Russian missiles have crossed over Moldova, a small country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, several times, despite Moldovan protests. The prime minister of Moldova on Friday announced her resignation in a reshuffle tied to problems she said were caused by the war, but her party remains in power.

Mr. Zelensky has argued repeatedly for NATO to see itself as being endangered by Russia, too, trying to goad the alliance into getting more involved in the fight. In November, he maintained that an explosion just across the border in Poland that killed two people was caused by a Russian missile, even after Polish and NATO officials said it was actually a remnant of a Ukrainian air defense missile.

This week, Mr. Zelensky made a whirlwind European tour — only his second trip outside the country since the war began — to rally support among Ukraine’s allies and plead for heavier weapons. He traveled to Britain, France, Belgium and Poland, met with heads of state and addressed the British and European parliaments.

His lobbying has already contributed to Western pledges of a host of sophisticated weapons systems, including long-range rocket artillery, tanks and antiaircraft missiles. Britain is also considering supplying fighter jets.

President Biden will travel on Feb. 20 to Poland, the White House announced on Friday, for meetings with Eastern European leaders who have been among the most vehement supporters of Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24 last year.

Since October, Russia has launched more than a dozen major waves of strikes on Ukraine’s energy facilities, as well as many smaller attacks, attempting to overwhelm air defenses that have become more adept at fending off attacks. Frustrated on the battlefield, Russian forces have turned to trying to incapacitate Ukraine and leave civilians without power, heat and even water during the winter.

The full extent of the damage from Friday’s strikes was not immediately clear, but energy infrastructure was hit in six regions of the country, according to Ukraine’s energy minister, Herman Galushchenko.

“Emergency shutdowns have been introduced in many regions,” Mr. Galushchenko said in a statement, adding that energy workers were working to restore supply. The state-owned power utility, Ukrenergo, confirmed damage to several high-voltage infrastructure sites in the eastern, western and southern regions of Ukraine.

The S-300 missiles were fired from Belgorod in Russia and the occupied city of Tokmak in southern Ukraine, toward targets in the cities of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia, officials said.

Anatolii Kurtiev, the secretary of the Zaporizhzhia City Council, said that at least 17 missile strikes had been reported there in less than an hour — the most intense bombardment since the war began. In Kharkiv, in the northeast, at east 10 explosions were reported overnight, said Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the regional administration. In both cities, officials said the scale of the damage was not immediately clear.

As air raid alarms sounded and civilians ran for shelter on Friday, Ukraine’s air defense units fanned out to open spaces with unobstructed fields of fire around major cities, in what is now a well-rehearsed series of steps, while radar stations swept the skies.

“As soon as my station registers something, we see it in the system” on a computer map, said Captain Andriy, a radar operator, who, like other members of his team, asked to be identified only by first name and rank.

Ukraine operates new Western-provided air defense weapons, including German-made IRIS-T and American-Norwegian NASAMS missiles, as well as older, Soviet-designed antiaircraft systems. But it also relies on mobile groups in trucks mounted with machine guns, which can be effective against relatively slow-moving drones. Soldiers with shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles can sometimes shoot down cruise missiles at low altitude.

“This morning three ballistic missiles flew by us, but they were too far to shoot down,” said Captain Andriy. He operates the radar for his air-defense group and uses a tablet computer showing missiles in flight throughout Ukraine, including those that might pass his machine gunners.

A private, who gave only his first name, Oleksandr, spent hours on Friday at the ready with a shoulder-fired missile. He did not have a chance to use it, but “we are learning,” he said. “We shoot down more these days.”

Over Kyiv, the capital, Ukrainian fighter jets raced across the sky to intercept inbound missiles, and air defense systems thundered. Ten missiles were shot down over the city, though power transmission lines were damaged, according to the mayor, Vitali Klitschko. He said engineers were working to restore the lines.

On the ground, Ukrainian forces on Friday battled advancing Russians in the pine forests near Kreminna, and held onto increasingly precarious defensive positions in the frozen trenches and battered buildings around the ruined city of Bakhmut, according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts.

The pace of Russian operations continued to intensify, but Britain’s defense intelligence agency said that Kyiv was managing to broadly hold its defensive lines.

“It is quite difficult for our fighters, but they control the situation” in Kreminna, Serhiy Haidai, the head of the Luhansk regional military administration, said in a statement on Friday about Ukraine’s efforts to repel the Russian assault.

After drafting some 300,000 men last fall, Russia now has about 150,000 troops in Ukraine, analysts say, and could send in still more, but many of them are raw conscripts with little training or motivation. U.S. officials estimate that as many as 200,000 Russian fighters have been killed or wounded in the past year — more than the number the Kremlin initially assigned to the invasion force.

Since Russia launched its invasion, its forces have rarely made swift gains; instead its advances have played out over weeks and months of grueling combat. They have fought for several months to take Bakhmut, which Moscow sees as a jumping-off point for attacking the Ukrainian stronghold at Kramatorsk, a vital step toward seizing all of the Donbas, which Russia has illegally annexed, despite not fully controlling the region. In addition, Kreminna and Bakhmut both sit along important highways.

Russia continued to make slow progress in its effort to cut off Ukrainian troops defending Bakhmut, Britain’s defense intelligence agency said on Friday.

Last summer, Ukraine abandoned the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in the face of a grinding Russian onslaught, rather than risk encirclement of its forces. But Mr. Zelensky said recently that there would be no such retreat from Bakhmut.

Reporting was contributed by Maria Varenikova from Kyiv, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York.

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