From the skies over Belarus to the north and the waters of the Black Sea to the south, Russian forces unleashed a firing squad of cruise missiles over Ukraine on Saturday, Ukrainian officials said, in one of the most widespread and coordinated airstrikes in weeks.
Even as Russia pounded civilian and military infrastructure from the air, fierce fighting raged on the Eastern Front, where Russian forces pushed to cut off supply lines to thousands of Ukrainian soldiers.
The Ukrainian army said Russian warplanes had attacked Ukrainian positions near the eastern city of Lysychansk, the last urban stronghold still under Ukrainian control in the eastern province of Luhansk, as Russian forces press to surround the city.
The rocket attacks came hours before President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was scheduled to meet with President Alexander G. Lukashenko of Belarus in St. Petersburg. Belarusian troops also resume military exercises near the border with the Kiev region, raising tensions and keeping Ukrainian authorities on high alert.
Ukraine’s military intelligence service called the Russian attack “a large-scale provocation by Russia with the aim of dragging Belarus further into the war against Ukraine”. Western military analysts say Belarus is unlikely to join the Russian war effort, but Mr Lukashenko’s grip on power relies on Kremlin support, which limits his political room for maneuver.
President Biden traveled to Germany on Saturday, where he would join the leaders of the world’s richest democracies — known as the Group of 7 — to bolster Western determination to support Ukraine in the face of the growing economic toll the war has brought. demands on their nations.
Even as Ukraine faces perhaps its most difficult moment on the battlefield since the early weeks of the war, its army commander General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi has released a tightly produced video to celebrate the first battlefield use of advanced multiple missile systems from the United States. He said the weapons were used to hit “enemy military targets on our Ukrainian territory”.
But the Russian missile strikes were a powerful reminder of the tremendous destructive power of Moscow’s arsenal, which is both aimed at military targets and used to pound towns and villages indiscriminately.
The mayor of the disputed southern port city of Mykolaiv, which has been under attack by Russian forces since the start of the war, called on “anyone who wants to survive” to leave, because “it is not clear when this will all be over. †
In an interview with Radio Liberty, he said the city was under daily shelling and that “about 80 percent of that ammunition is cluster munitions,” fired by Russian multiple-launch missile systems.
About half of Mykolaiv’s pre-war population of 480,000 has already fled. Many of those who remain are older, and about 80 percent of them live on food and clothing donated by aid organizations.
Saturday’s Russian strikes also hit parts of the country where it has been relatively quiet in recent weeks. Even in the western and northern regions, where the wails of air-raid sirens had become more sporadic, they rang out countless times in less than 48 hours to signal that missiles had been fired within striking distance.
Dozens of rocket attacks were launched overnight by Russian planes into Belarusian airspace, according to a Belarusian monitoring group, Belarusian Guyun, which details Russian actions since the start of the war.
Ukrainian military intelligence said six Russian Tu-22M3 bombers took off from Shaykovka airport in Russia’s Kaluga region, flying over Smolensk, before entering Belarusian airspace. When they were within about 30 miles of the Ukrainian border, they fired at least 12 cruise missiles before returning to Russian airspace, according to the agency. The missiles hit targets in the Kiev, Chernihiv and Sumy regions, the army said.
Local Ukrainian officials reported more rockets they believe were launched from Belarus, including a barrage of 24 rockets that hit the outskirts of Zhytomyr, a town about 80 miles (80 km) west of Kiev.
The toll of the nighttime strikes across the country was not immediately clear, and Ukrainians rarely release details about attacks on military installations. But Vitaly Bunechko, the governor of the Zhytomyr region, said at least one soldier had been killed and another injured.
In the Chernihiv region, immediately east of Kiev, the area’s governor Vyacheslav Chaus said a “mass missile strike” from Belarusian territory had destroyed infrastructure in the village of Desna, where Ukrainian troops also have a military installation.
The Ukrainians said their air defenses had shot down two missiles between a salvo of six launched from naval vessels in the Black Sea, while the remaining four hit a “military object” in the Yavoriv area, the site of a military training base in the Lviv region. . Four people were injured, said Maksym Kozytskyi, the region’s governor.
The Yavoriv district has been targeted several times since the start of the war, including a major attack in March that left dozens dead and injured.
The attacks came as Ukraine is in a heightened state of alert as Belarusian forces conduct ‘mobilization’ exercises near Ukraine’s northern border. The exercises threaten to exacerbate tensions in an already unstable region and have prompted Ukraine to step up its border guards.
In the early stages of the war, Belarus allowed Putin to use its territory for Russian forces to stage a shock-and-awe operation to try to take Kiev. The plan failed spectacularly, but with Russia mired in a war of attrition in eastern Ukraine, Moscow would benefit from any help Lukashenko could offer.
Ukrainian officials and Western observers believe it is highly unlikely that Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.4 million inhabitants, will join the war directly at this point, given the risk of causing social unrest at home and Mr Lukashenko’s undermines its grip on power. Nevertheless, analysts believe Mr Lukashenko, an autocrat linked to the Kremlin, is desperately trying to show his worth to Mr Putin.
And some analysts believe it is only a matter of time before Mr Putin’s pressure forces Mr Lukashenko to take more direct action in the war, leaving him with an existential dilemma. Participation in the conflict could undermine his support at home, but if he disobeys Mr Putin, the Russian leader could retaliate by taking steps to force him from office.
Roger Cohen reporting contributed.