KYIV, Ukraine – Explosions behind the front lines rocked Ukraine on Friday, as a Russian missile destroyed part of a hospital complex and Ukrainian strikes hit cities. occupied by Russia, in their escalating, long air war.
An attack on a medical center in the central city of Dnipro killed at least two people, left three others missing and injured at least 30, Ukrainian officials said. It destroyed a three-story building and damaged several others.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine posted a video on social media in a destroyed building, its roof and upper walls gone, billowing smoke into the sky, calling it “another crime against humanity.”
Ukraine is expected to launch a major counter-offensive soon – some analysts say it could be in the very early stages – and both sides have stepped up their strikes from afar there is no fighting on the ground yet. Kyiv’s forces have increased the tempo and attacks deep into Russian-held territory, primarily on military depots, convoys and troop concentrations, and railways used by Russian forces.
On Friday, explosions were reported in the southern Russian-held town of Berdyansk, about 60 miles from the front, for the second time this week. Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russian occupation of southern Ukraine, said several loud explosions rang out throughout Berdyansk overnight and that Russian air defenses had repelled the Ukrainian attack, a claim that cannot be confirmed.
Ukraine’s military did not comment on Berdyansk specifically but said its air force “delivered five strikes targeting enemy manpower and equipment clusters.” GeoConfirmed, one of the many volunteer groups closely tracking the movements of the war in Ukraine, posted pictures on Twitter showed a large fire and said effects recorded in Berdyansk, although it is not clear what was hit.
On Friday night, there were two large explosions in another occupied southern city, Mariupol, about 40 miles from Berdyansk, near the Azovstal steel works, according to Mariupol city government officials who fled before the Russians took over. Russian occupation officials said the explosions were caused by Ukrainian missiles, which were newly supplied by Britain, according to the state news agency Tass.
The Dnipro hospital strike on Friday morning followed one of a growing number of Russian barrages aimed at cities and infrastructure far from the battlefield, with missiles and drones fired in clusters in an attempt to counter the air defenses of Ukraine. Ukraine’s military said it destroyed 10 of 17 missiles launched, and 23 of 31 drones in the attack.
“Only an evil state can fight clinics,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter. “There’s no military purpose to it. It’s pure terror.”
Russia’s defense ministry told state media it had hit ammunition depots in Ukraine.
The city of Dnipro is a hub for Ukrainian soldiers wounded in the war, often a first stop before being taken to hospitals in other parts of the country. It was unclear if any Ukrainian soldiers were being treated at the facility that was hit Friday.
“It was a difficult night,” said Serhii Lysak, head of the Dnipro regional government. One of the people who died, he said, was a 69-year-old man who was “just passing by” when the hospital was hit.
Since the start of President Vladimir V. Putin’s full-scale invasion 15 months ago, Russia has used its weapons advantage to bomb civilian targets across Ukraine, such as hospitals, schools and factories of electricity, which is considered a war crime. At first the long-range strikes were completely one-sided and largely unhindered.
But as Ukraine’s military gains experience and acquires more and more Western weapons, it has become more adept at intercepting such Russian attacks, and better able to respond in kind.
Last summer, the United States began providing Ukraine with the HIMARS rocket artillery system with a range of about 50 miles, making a significant difference in the war. In December, Ukraine demonstrated that it could adapt Soviet-era surveillance drones into long-range weapons to strike inside Russia. And Britain this month began supplying Ukraine with high-precision, air-launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles with a range of about 150 miles – far enough to reach any corner of Russian-held Ukraine.
After a strike in Berdyansk on Sunday, local Russian officials admitted that Kyiv was using the newly acquired Storm Shadow.
Russian forces have turned Berdyansk, a port on the Sea of Azov, into a military stronghold, using it as a base for soldiers and a transit point for supplies, according to military analysts. .
Closer to the front lines in the Donetsk region, Russian forces breached a dam on the Vovcha River on Thursday, causing flooding downstream that threatened six villages, home to nearly 1,000 people. , Pavlo Kyrylenko, the regional administrator of Ukraine, said on Friday. The strike may be an attempt to prevent the movements of Ukrainian troops behind the lines, a tactic used by both sides of this war.
The Ukrainian government has repeatedly warned of the risk that Russia will explode the larger Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River, flooding a wider area and lowering the reservoir that cools the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, creating a emergency there.
On Friday, Ukrainian military intelligence warned that the Russians planned to stage an emergency at the power plant, which they occupy, “in the next few hours” to provide an excuse for a preventive ceasefire on the counter-offensive. The government of Ukraine has issued warnings in the past about threats to the plant, but rarely very specifically.
“A strike will be carried out” at the plant, followed by the announcement of a radioactive leak, the intelligence department said on Telegram, adding that the Russians would blame Ukraine. Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear power company, repeated the allegation.
The Ukrainians did not provide evidence for the claim, leaving it unclear whether it was a case of disinformation intended to unbalance the Russians. Hours later, a Russian occupation official said the Ukrainians were planning to stage an emergency at the plant.
The United States is closely monitoring the situation but has seen no information to support the idea that an incident was planned, said an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. The United States has direct access to data from radiation sensors in the area, the official said.
The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency has inspectors based at the Zaporizhzhia plant, and a rotation of some arriving and others leaving is due to take place on Friday. The Ukrainians said the Russians messed it up. The Russian state energy company that currently manages the plant told Tass that the Ukrainians blocked it.
The UN agency declined to comment.
On the diplomatic front, Pope Francis, who offered the Vatican as a mediator, refused to endorse the position of Ukraine and most of its supporters in the West, that Russia should return all Ukrainian territories it seized. Kyiv called it a necessity for peace talks, insisting that otherwise, any ceasefire would only reinforce Russia’s gains.
In an interview Thursday, in Spanish, with the Telemundo network, Francis was asked twice if Russia should leave the territory. For the first time, he answered the question directly.
“This is a political issue,” he said a second time. “Peace will be achieved when they talk to each other.”
Andrew E. Kramer and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Pokrovsk, Ukraine, and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.