Kyiv: Russia pounded Ukraine with missiles during the morning rush hour on Thursday, killing at least one person in Kyiv and damaging energy infrastructure in the Black Sea region of Odesa, officials said.
Crowds of people took cover in the capital’s metro stations during a nationwide air alert before Russia unleashed the latest in more than a dozen air attacks on the power grid since October that have caused sweeping outages during winter.
The missile strikes followed a drone attack overnight, one day after Ukraine secured pledges of main battle tanks from Germany and the United States to beef up its troops - a move that infuriated Russian officials.
Air defences shot down 47 of 55 missiles that included at least one Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missile, said General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s top military commander. Twenty incoming missiles were downed in the vicinity of Kyiv.
“The goal of the Russians remains unchanged: psychological pressure on Ukrainians and the destruction of critical infrastructure,” he wrote. “But we cannot be broken!” Air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat said as many six Tu-95 warplanes had taken off from the Arctic region of Murmansk in northern Russia and launched long-range missiles.
At one point, Kyiv authorities said all the incoming missiles had been shot down by air defences, but warned the threat had not passed.
Minutes later, loud explosions rocked two districts of Kyiv.
City officials said a 55-year-old man had been killed and two other people wounded when non-residential buildings in the south of the city were struck.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Russia’s main target had been energy facilities and that the strikes aimed to deprive Ukrainians “of light and heating” with the temperature in Kyiv at below freezing.
“Unfortunately, substations were hit. But the situation in the energy system remains under control,” he wrote on Telegram.
A Reuters reporter heard the sound of a missile flying overhead at a low altitude, about 30 km from Kyiv.
Two critical energy infrastructure facilities were damaged in the region of Odesa, but no injuries were reported, Odesa’s District Military Administration wrote on Telegram.
Impacts were reported in the central region of Vinnytsia, while Kyiv region officials said critical infrastructure and residential homes had been damaged as a result of drone and missile attacks.
In the capital, Iryna, an accountant in her fifties sheltering in a metro station, said she was worried about her husband.
“He was planning to go to a post office in the morning and now he is not answering his phone,” she said.
An eerie calm descended on a snow-blanketed Kyiv during the strikes, but life quickly returned to normal afterwards. Central bank officials announced the findings of their key interest rate meeting at a briefing from the safety of an undisclosed shelter.
DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy producer, said it was conducting emergency power shutdowns in Kyiv, the surrounding region as well as the regions of Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk because of missile attacks.
Energy Minister German Galushchenko said the Kyiv, Odesa and Vinnytsia regions were the most affected by outages.
Overnight, the military said its anti-aircraft defences had shot down all 24 drones sent by Russia. Fifteen of the drones were downed around Kyiv where there were no reports of any damage.
How the US got to yes on Abrams tanks
Washington: They are expensive and hard to maintain. They run on jet fuel. And they are difficult to operate.
The US Pentagon presented its best arguments, publicly and privately, against sending Abrams — its most advanced battle tanks — to Ukraine.
But President Joe Biden ultimately decided to approve the delivery of 31 tanks on Wednesday, which senior US officials said came from the need to maintain unity among allies backing Ukraine.
Biden’s decision capped a week of failed diplomatic efforts to get Germany to send its main Leopard battle tank to Ukraine without a comparable move from Washington.
The reversal ended a rare public division in the alliance that Washington officials feared Moscow could exploit.
Since the start of Russia’s attack of Ukraine, Biden and European allies have sought to present an image of harmonious support for Ukraine despite occasional disagreements.
The billions of dollars worth of Western weaponry funnelled into the country, Western allies said, were tangible signs that Russian President Vladimir Putin had failed to divide the West as he pressed his nearly year-old attack.
But the split over German tanks undermined those efforts, raising questions about whether the West would fall short in providing the heavy armour that Kyiv says it needs to mount a spring counteroffensive.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Berlin last Wednesday to convince Germany’s new defence minister Boris Pistorius that Germany should at the very least allow countries like Poland to re-export their Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
“The secretary will be pressing the Germans on this,” one senior US defence official said at the time.
The trip, which included a day-long meeting at Ramstein airbase in Germany, failed to achieve a breakthrough and left US officials frustrated.
Tank deliveries months away
In Washington, senior US officials had privately expressed consternation at Germany’s attempts to tie the Abrams tanks to delivery of the Leopards.
One senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that US officials did not think the Abrams tanks were a net positive for Ukraine because they are difficult to operate and maintain.
But Germany did not want to go it alone, the official said, prompting the Americans to wonder whether there was deeper reason in Berlin having to do with the symbolism of German tanks rolling in eastern Europe for a country still scarred from starting World War Two.
At the same time, US officials were trying to answer the clamour from Ukraine for tanks while impressing on the Ukrainians that there are limits to assistance in the long haul.
The Germans refused to budge. As Austin landed in Berlin, German officials told reporters that Berlin would allow German-made tanks to be sent to Ukraine if the United States agreed to send its own tanks.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had stressed that stipulation several times behind closed doors. He also discussed the issue in multiple phone conversations with Biden this month, senior Biden administration officials said.
That led to media coverage of divisions between the United States and Germany that raised eyebrows back in Washington, where officials thought they had been clear against sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
US officials argued that American contributions to the Ukraine war effort had been substantial with Bradley Fighting Vehicles, air defence systems, millions of artillery rounds and other potent weaponry. Each Abrams tank costs more than $10 million, including training and sustainment.
“The headline is not about whether we’ve come to agreement or not with Germany on tanks. The headline is the United States has provided $5 billion of security assistance to Ukraine in the last month,” one senior official said on Friday.
In public, the United States took the high road, insisting it was Berlin’s sovereign decision to make.
But at one point during Austin’s trip, Washington asked Berlin to stop publicly tying Germany’s approval of the Leopard tanks to the Biden administration sending Abrams tanks.
The American pressure appeared to have worked, at least for a while. Pistorius, the German defence minister, told a TV interview on Thursday that he did not know of any requirement that Ukraine receive US and German tanks simultaneously.
On Friday, a German government spokesperson even said the delivery of Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine was never tied to the United States making a similar move.
But back in Washington, officials were looking for “creative solutions.” However, the issue came to a surprise close on Wednesday when Biden announced his approval alongside a similar German announcement.
The compromise appears to have been a decision to send Abrams not now, but sometime down the road — months from now.
Despite the uncertain timeline, Ukraine has welcomed the decisions. “It’s an important step on the path to victory,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted on Wednesday.