Missile strikes killed 18 people and wounded dozens in Ukraine’s Odessa region Friday, a day after Russian troops abandoned positions on a strategic island in a major setback to the Kremlin’s invasion.
The news came after Nato leaders wrapped up a summit in Madrid, with US President Joe Biden announcing US$800 million in new weapons for Ukraine.
“We are going to stick with Ukraine, and all of the alliance are going to stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes to make sure they are not defeated by Russia,” he said.
The missiles were fired early Friday, hitting an apartment building and recreation centre about 80km south of the Black Sea port of Odessa, which has become a strategic flashpoint in the conflict.
Ukrainian emergency services initially said 17 people were killed and 30 wounded in both attacks. Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official at the Ukrainian presidency, later wrote on Telegram that the death toll had risen to 18, including two children.
The strikes, in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, were launched by aircraft that flew in from the Black Sea, said Odessa military administration spokesman Sergiy Bratchuk.
“The worst-case scenario played out and two strategic aircraft came to the Odessa region,” he said in a TV interview, adding they had fired “very heavy and very powerful” missiles.
Earlier this week, there was global outrage when a Russian strike destroyed a shopping centre in Kremenchuk, central Ukraine, killing at least 18 civilians. Putin has denied Moscow’s forces were responsible.
Friday’s attacks came a day after Russian troops abandoned their positions on Snake Island, off the coast of Odessa.
The island had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the first days of the war, when the rocky outcrop’s defenders told a Russian warship to “go f*** yourself” after it called on them to surrender – an incident that spurred a defiant meme.
It was also a strategic target, sitting aside shipping lanes near the port of Odessa. Russia had attempted to install missile and air defence batteries while under fire from drones.
Ukraine was recently granted “candidate status” by the European Union as it pushes to join the bloc, although membership is likely still years away.
On Friday, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen told Ukraine’s parliament that membership was “within reach” but urged them to press forward with anti-corruption reforms.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile announced Ukraine had begun exporting electricity to the EU, via Romania, as fears grow of an energy crisis in Europe due to reduced Russian gas deliveries.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared surging diplomatic tensions to the Cold War.
“As far as an Iron Curtain is concerned, essentially it is already descending… The process has begun,” he told reporters.
There was a glimmer of hope however, when Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he had given Russian President Vladimir Putin a message from Zelensky.
It came after Widodo visited both Moscow and Kyiv. Neither side has revealed what was in the note.
Zelensky said Russia’s decision to abandon Snake Island “changes the situation in the Black Sea considerably”.
“It does not yet guarantee security. It does not yet guarantee that the enemy will not return. But it already considerably limits the actions of the occupiers,” he said in his daily address.
The Russian defence ministry described the retreat as “a gesture of goodwill” meant to demonstrate that Moscow will not interfere with UN efforts to organise protected grain exports from Ukraine.
In peacetime, Ukraine is a major agricultural exporter, but Russia’s invasion has damaged farmland and seen Ukraine’s ports seized, razed or blockaded – sparking concerns about food shortages, particularly in poor countries.
Western powers have accused Putin of using the trapped harvest as a weapon to increase pressure on the international community, and Russia has been accused of stealing grain.
On Thursday, a ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of grain sailed from Ukraine’s occupied port of Berdyansk, said the regional leader appointed by the Russian occupation forces.
Donbas under fire
Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Moscow administration, said Russia’s Black Sea ships “are ensuring the security” of the journey, adding that the port had been de-mined.
The conflict in Ukraine dominated the Nato summit in Madrid this week, as the alliance officially invited Sweden and Finland to join, and Biden announced new deployments of US troops, ships and planes to Europe.
Russian missiles have continued to rain down elsewhere in Ukraine, with the city of Lysychansk in the eastern Donbas region coming under sustained bombardment.
Capturing the city would allow the Russians to push deeper in the Donbas, which has become the focus of their offensive since failing to capture Kyiv after their February invasion.
Sergiy Gaiday – governor of the Lugansk region, which includes Lysychansk – said the city continued to face heavy shelling.
“Residents of Lysychansk barely leave their basements and homes,” he wrote on Telegram, adding fires had broken out in houses and shopping malls.
The Russians had taken control of parts of the city’s oil refinery, he said.