Ukrainian civilians face heightened threat of Russian strikes in coming days, warns US

Ukraine warned of the potential for more serious attacks by Russia as the conflict neared its six-month anniversary. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KYIV (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - American intelligence agencies believe Russia is likely to step up its efforts to attack civilian infrastructure and government buildings in Ukraine with the war about to begin its seventh month and Ukraine about to celebrate its Independence Day holiday, the State Department and other US officials said on Monday (Aug 22).

The US government declassified an intelligence warning on Monday to ensure that the officials’ concerns about the threat reached a broad audience. Following that declassification, the US Embassy in Kyiv issued a security alert and once more urged American citizens to leave Ukraine.

“The Department of State has information that Russia is stepping up efforts to launch strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and government facilities in the coming days,” the alert said. “Russian strikes in Ukraine pose a continued threat to civilians and civilian infrastructure.”

The warning comes as both Ukrainian and American officials have been concerned about a new Russian offensive, potentially timed to Ukraine’s Independence Day on Wednesday and as a response to a string of attacks against Russian military targets in Crimea, the peninsula in the Black Sea that Russia illegally annexed in 2014. The declassified intelligence warning was reported earlier by Reuters.

Throughout the war, Russia has struck civilian infrastructure, including rail lines, shopping malls, auditoriums and apartment buildings. Some of those attacks have been part of broad artillery barrages, while others have been targeted strikes that missed their intended marks.

US officials said the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine had slowed in recent weeks. Any attacks in coming days are unlikely to be part of a new offensive, officials said.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in his nightly video address last Saturday, said Moscow could try “something particularly ugly” in the run-up to Wednesday, which also marks half a year since Russia invaded.

He said he had discussed “all the threats” with his French counterpart and word had also been sent to other leaders including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“All of Ukraine’s partners have been informed about what the terrorist state can prepare for this week,” Mr Zelensky said, referring to Russia.

Mr Mick Mulroy, a former CIA officer and Pentagon official, said he expected Russia to aim for targets in Kyiv, potentially using the killing of Ms Darya Dugina in a car-bombing outside Moscow last Saturday to justify the strikes.

Ms Dugina, 29, was the daughter of Mr Alexander Dugin, a political theorist who has provided the intellectual framework for President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the months before the Russian invasion in February, the White House began declassifying information about the Kremlin’s plans in an effort to warn Ukrainians and US allies about the threat and to marshal opposition.

While the pace of that declassification has slowed in recent weeks, officials have continued to release synopses of intelligence reports on various Russian plans. The intelligence warnings have continued to prove correct – a signal that American intelligence agencies are still able to collect information on the Russian military’s forthcoming operations.

Celebrations banned

Ukraine’s capital Kyiv banned public celebrations this week to commemorate independence from Russian-dominated Soviet rule and its second city Kharkiv declared a curfew due to a heightened threat of Russian attack, local authorities said.

Local authorities in Kyiv have banned large public events, rallies and other gatherings related to the anniversary in the capital from Monday until Thursday due to the possibility of rocket attacks, according to a document published by the Kyiv military administration and signed by its head Mykola Zhyrnov.

Mr Ihor Terekhov, mayor of Kharkiv in the northeast which has come under frequent and deadly long-range Russian bombardment, extended a regular overnight curfew to run from 4pm to 7am effective from Tuesday to Thursday.

In the port city of Mykolaiv near Russian-occupied territory to the south, regional governor Vitaly Kim said authorities were preparing a precautionary order for residents to work from home on Tuesday and Wednesday and urged people not to gather in large groups.

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Near frontlines in the south of the country, Ukraine said Russia fired rockets into several southern Ukrainian towns north and west of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, captured by Russian forces shortly after they invaded Ukraine in February.

Artillery and rocket fire in the region of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor complex, on the Russian-occupied south bank of the Dnipro River, has stirred fears of a nuclear disaster and led to calls for the surrounding area to be demilitarised.

Russia launched what it calls a “special military operation” on Feb 24 to demilitarise its smaller neighbour and protect Russian-speaking communities. Ukraine and its Western backers accuse Moscow of waging an imperial-style war of conquest.

The head of Ukraine’s armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said on Monday that nearly 9,000 Ukrainian military personnel have been killed in the war with Russia. The toll appeared to be the first provided by Ukraine’s military top brass since Russia’s invasion.

Nuclear risk

Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for repeated incidents of shelling in and around the premises of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor complex, on the Russian-occupied south bank of the Dnipro River, in recent weeks.

Kyiv has accused Moscow of basing troops and storing military equipment on the grounds of the power station and using it as a shield from which to bombard Ukrainian government-controlled territory to the west and north. Russia denies this and accuses Ukraine of targeting the plant with shells and drones.

Overnight on Monday, Russian forces fired rockets into Nikopol, just across the Dnipro from the plant on its south bank, as well as the Krivyi Rih and Synelnykovskyi districts further out to the northwest and northeast respectively, regional Governor Valentyn Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.

Ukraine also reported a Russian missile strike on Voznesensk, to the southwest and not far from the country’s second-largest atomic power station.

Ukrainian authorities examine the scene of a missile strike in Dokuchaievske village near Kharkiv on Aug 21, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

On Sunday, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron held a phone call stressing the importance of ensuring the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear installations.

They also welcomed recent discussions on enabling a mission by the UN nuclear watchdog agency to Zaporizhzhia, while reaffirming their “steadfast commitment” to support Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion.

The conflict, Europe’s biggest since World War II, has destroyed towns and cities, killed thousands of people, forced millions to flee abroad and deepened a geopolitical chasm between Russia and the West.

Since Ukraine repelled a Russian attempt to capture Kyiv early in the war, the fighting has been concentrated in the east and south where frontlines have been largely static for weeks.

In its morning update on Monday, Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces had made incremental advances into the Blahodnatne area in the direction of Mykolaiv.

Russia was also trying to regain momentum towards Pisky, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk, key towns in Donetsk province which, along with neighbouring Luhansk, captured by Moscow’s forces earlier in the summer, comprise the eastern Donbas region.

Russian artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems hammered the areas of Soledar, Zaytseve and Bilohorivka near Bakhmut, the Ukrainian military command’s update said.

At least two civilians were killed, the regional administration said. Russia denies targeting civilians.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield reports.

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