Russia claimed it foiled another incursion by pro-Kiev militias into its border region with Ukraine, sparking panic among residents who rushed to evacuate.
Russian forces, meanwhile, have stepped up their ballistic missile attacks on the Ukrainian capital, killing three civilians and wounding 14 others on Thursday.
Russia’s defense ministry said its troops thwarted an attack near the Shebekino border crossing at about 3 a.m. on Thursday, which killed 30 Ukrainians and destroyed several combat vehicles.
The Financial Times was unable to verify Moscow’s claims. However, two Ukraine-based militias have claimed they have invaded the Belgorod region, the second incursion in just over a week. These are the same anti-Kremlin militias that ventured into that area in May, largely made up of Russian citizens using US-made military vehicles. While Ukraine denied any direct involvement, a military intelligence official admitted that his branch “cooperates” with the militias.
The raids, as well as recent drone strikes in Moscow, have exposed Russia’s security risks and brought the war back to the Russians.
Local authorities said shelling of the Shebekino district has increased significantly since Wednesday. The city was attacked by Grad missiles, resulting in several fires and the destruction of buildings. The attack caused people to panic and leave the city, according to several residents who spoke to the FT.
“The whole city of Shebekino is under constant attack . . . People are panicking, those who may try to leave. The others are hiding in the cellars,” says Alexander, a local blogger.
He said the local government had set up a hotline for those seeking help to flee, but there was no centralized evacuation for everyone.
Belgorod governor Viacheslav Gladkov announced a voluntary evacuation of children on Wednesday. But he said assembly points would not be publicized because they could become targets and authorities would instead drive evacuation cars to homes.
Local social media channels were flooded with panicked messages from people wanting to carpool out of town or begging neighbors to help their elderly relatives. A local resident said so many people were fleeing that the gas stations were almost empty.
“The kids are scared, the hotline is busy! Why is the evacuation not announced!? Doesn’t anyone care about the people?” Aksinia, a resident of Shebekino, wrote in a local channel. ‘We don’t know what to do! How are we going to get out of here!!!”
No fatalities have been reported as a result of the raid, but several people were reported injured and 11 hospitalized, according to the state agency RIA Novosti.
The aim of these types of attacks inside Russia, a Western official said, is to create more difficulties for Russian command and control, forcing it to move troops into areas it previously did not need to defend.
“There is another aspect to the psychological side,” the official said. Not knowing what to expect from the Ukrainian counter-offensive creates a “fraying period of waiting and uncertainty” when morale is already low due to the “more than 200,000” casualties Russia has estimated to have suffered since launching its full-scale invasion.
The Kremlin has not commented on the deteriorating situation in the Belgorod region, in stark contrast to its bellicose rhetoric following the attacks on Moscow and the Kremlin.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that President Vladimir Putin “receives reports all the time. . . about Shebekino and remains in contact with the local authorities”. He stressed that the attacks would not change the course of the Russian war and regretted that the West had not criticized them.
In Kiev, authorities were dealing with the aftermath of the 18th Russian airstrike on the Ukrainian capital in the past 31 days.
Thursday morning’s rocket bombardment began at about 3 a.m. local time, when air raid sirens blared throughout the city and explosions from air defense systems could be seen and heard in the night sky.
The Ukrainian Air Force said it shot down 10 missiles launched from Russia’s Bryansk region. Kiev mayor Vitaly Klitschko said rocket remnants had crashed in eastern Dniprovskyi and Desnyanskyi districts.
Klitschko, a celebrated boxer who has been mayor since June 2014, was criticized Thursday after a Kiev resident blamed him for his wife’s death.
Yaroslav Riabchuk told Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne that he, his wife and their daughter tried to take shelter in the basement of a medical facility in Desnyanskyi district, but were unable to enter when debris crashed.
“The shelter was locked. People knocked and knocked for a long time. . . There were women and children, but no one opened the door,” Riabchuk said, fighting back tears. “Our child survived, but my wife was killed.”
Two other people were also killed, including a nine-year-old child.
Klitschko, who was on the scene, said the clinic’s director and the head of the Desnyanskyi district were suspended while police investigate why the doors were locked.
The Air Force said the use of ballistic and cruise missiles meant there were only a few minutes between their launch and when they were intercepted, leaving very little time to seek shelter.
The deaths of two children were particularly hard as the attack took place on International Children’s Day. In Kiev, Klitschko announced that all planned events have been cancelled.
In Moscow, Putin held video conferences with Russian families, answering questions from children asking if he was more powerful than Russian Santa Claus. “We are all sinful people, we should strive for what is given to us (from above),” Putin said.
Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone in London