Ukraine air defenses counter Russian barrage, but missiles hit energy targets

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Residents wait to collect water outside an apartment building in Pavlohrad, Ukraine, on Dec. 16, 2022, after water service was knocked out during a Russian missile barrage.

KYIV, Ukraine – Russia launched another ferocious barrage of missiles at Ukraine on Friday, again pummeling critical infrastructure. At least three people were killed and more than a dozen were injured when a residential building was hit in Kryvyi Rih, one of seven cities targeted in the attack.

Damaged cities – including Kharkiv and Sumy in the northeast, Poltava, Dnipro and Kyiv, the capital – reported power outages after the strikes, even though Ukrainian officials said that their bolstered air defenses had succeeded in intercepting and destroying 60 of 76 missiles fired by the Russians.

It was not possible for The Washington Post to independently verify the Ukrainian claims, but Kyiv’s Western supporters have been rushing to send additional air defense systems to the country since Russia began its bombing campaign against infrastructure in early October.

Ukraine’s air force said in a statement that Friday’s strikes were a “massive” attack on “critical infrastructure facilities and fuel.” The missiles were launched from ships and aircraft in the Caspian, Azov and Black seas, as well from areas farther inside mainland Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly acknowledged Russia’s efforts to destroy Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, accusing Kyiv and the West of provoking the attacks, though it was Russia that initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly 10 months ago, seeking to topple its government. Western leaders have said the attacks could be a war crime, because they have no military purpose.

Friday’s barrage confirmed that the Kremlin has no intention of relenting in its bombing campaign and may make good on threats to step up its strikes in response to recent announcements by the United States and other Western nations of plans to send additional, increasingly high-powered weapons to Ukraine and to increase training for the Ukrainian military.

The European Union on Thursday adopted a ninth package of sanctions as part of the continuing Western effort to punish Russia for the war by isolating its economy. “We have acted in unprecedented unity and speed,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a news conference. “We have legendary sanctions.”

Putin is planning a visit next week to Belarus, which has allowed Russian forces to use its territory as a springboard for attacks, and there is rising concern among Ukrainian officials that Russia may attempt another incursion into Ukraine from the north – not necessarily to retry its failed attempt to seize Kyiv but perhaps to hit from behind at Ukrainian forces pushing east into Russian-occupied territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The Pentagon has acknowledged Ukraine’s concerns but says it sees no signs that such an attack is imminent.

Leonid Pasechnik, the Russian proxy leader in occupied Luhansk, said on Telegram that Ukrainian artillery fire killed eight people and injured 23 in the village of Lantratovka and the town of Stakhanov early Friday.

Despite repeated setbacks on the battlefield, Russia has had greater success in its bombing campaign, and the destruction of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has pushed the country to the brink of humanitarian and economic crises by depriving citizens of heat and hot water in winter and cutting off electricity used to power homes and businesses.

Air raid sirens sounded out across Ukraine around 8 a.m. It was the ninth heavy missile attack since Russia began targeting Ukraine’s energy systems on Oct. 10, officials at Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s primary power operator, said in a statement.

Soon after the sirens went off, explosions could be heard in the capital of Kyiv, in Kharkiv and Sumy in the northeast, Poltava in central Ukraine, and numerous other locations. For citizens it was generally impossible to know whether the booms represented successful strikes or were the sound of air defenses destroying the missiles in midair.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Customers shop in the dark at a supermarket in Pavlohrad, Ukraine, after a Russian missile attack on Dec. 16, 2022.

Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said in a post on Telegram that the capital “withstood one of the biggest missile attacks since the beginning” of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, nearly ten months ago.

About 40 missiles were fired at Kyiv, Klitschko said, of which 37 were shot down. The Post could not verify those numbers.

However, Klitschko also said in a television interview that three districts of the city were hit by missiles and that because of the attack, “several energy-providing facilities” had been damaged and Kyiv was experiencing “interruptions with electricity, water and heat.”

In Kryvyi Rih, the hometown of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, three people were killed when a Russian missile hit a residential building, “a 64-year-old woman and a young couple,” Valentyn Reznichenko, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said in a Telegram post. Thirteen people were also injured, including four children, Reznichenko said.

“Everyone is in the hospital,” he said.

Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synyehubov said that 10 missiles were fired at the region, cutting electricity to more than 1 million people. Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov also described “colossal destruction” to the city’s infrastructure and said residents had lost electricity, heating or water supplies.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed Friday to have destroyed a “missile and artillery arms depot” in Kharkiv and to have hit Ukrainian command posts in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions – two of the Ukrainian regions that Putin has claimed to have annexed, in violation of international law.

Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s energy operator, said that the attacks had “substantially increased” Ukraine’s energy deficit, with emergency shutdowns taking place in all regions of Ukraine.

“The northern, southern and central regions were the biggest impacts,” Ukrenergo said in a statement on Facebook. “Where this is now possible, maintenance crews are already assessing the extent of damage and beginning emergency repair work.”

Friday’s attacks reverberated through Pavlohrad in southeastern Ukraine, where some residents said they had lost water for the first time since the war began.

Yevgeniy Velichko, 33, carried two five-liter jugs of water through the city after his taps stopped running at home.

His neighborhood supermarket had lost power earlier in the day and began turning customers away before locking its doors, leading a handful of women to stand outside and discuss where they could go for groceries.

“The lack of electricity is manageable. We have candles. We have food,” Velichko said. “But the water is a different case. You have to shower, you have to do laundry, or be able to have tea and drink water.”

With an automatic water pump shut off a few blocks away because of the outages, about 30 residents lined up on Poltavska Street to use a manual pump, carrying large plastic jugs, which they would then lug home.

Natalia, 40, a social worker, said she had been working since 7:30 a.m. to distribute food, medicine and water to elderly residents. One of her clients, a 76-year-old woman with a disability, lives on the fourth floor of her building and cannot get up and down the stairs.

Natalia brought two large aluminum jugs with her to the pump around 3 p.m. She then had to deliver them, before returning to the pump again Friday for her last elderly client.

Vova Shtonda, 20, accompanied his mother Oksana, 41, and his brother Dina, 10, to the manual water pump, carrying five plastic bottles in addition to the 10 liters he could fit in his backpack. His father is off fighting in the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut.

“It’s not as scary as when your city is being bombed,” Shtonda said, craning his neck to see how long the line in front of him was. “I’m concerned, but I’m trying to keep my hopes up.”