With a pointed warning to Ukraine’s western allies, Russia tested a new intercontinental missile on Wednesday, even as it unleashed a rain of bombs, artillery and missiles inside Ukraine in the purpose of weakening the Ukrainian defenses for a major ground offensive in the east.
The intensification of the barrage, targeting more than 1,100 targets, came as the Russian military carried out probing attacks along a 300-mile front line winding through the Donbass region in the southeast of Ukraine, which the Kremlin says will be at the center of the next phase of its war, and has continued to build and prepare a massive force there.
The new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile “will make anyone trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied and aggressive rhetoric think twice,” Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said in televised remarks, a clear reference to the United States and other nations that aided Ukraine in the face of the eight-week Russian invasion.
It is not yet clear whether the missile, which the Russian Defense Ministry says could carry multiple nuclear warheads and outwit defenses anywhere in the world, actually possesses game-changing capabilities. The ministry also acknowledged that the missile was not yet ready for active deployment, and the United States said it was not surprised by the launch.
But Mr Putin’s test firings and comments fit neatly into a relentless Kremlin propaganda campaign – the only information many of his people have ever seen – portraying Russians not as aggressors but as victims of Western persecution, but still powerful and inflexible.
During a television appearance with a group of school children in the Kremlin, Mr Putin repeated his lie that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian speakers in the Donbass, which had “forced, simply forced Russia to launch this operation military “.
Rising death and destruction in the Donbass, along with a critical shortage of basic supplies and services, has led to an exodus of staggering proportions in Ukraine, a country with an estimated pre-war population of 43. millions of inhabitants. The United Nations said the number of people who have left the country has reached 5 million, in addition to more than 7 million who have fled or been forced to leave their homes but remain in Ukraine.
Russia has rejected calls from the United Nations and others for a humanitarian ceasefire to allow civilians to evacuate safely and supplies to reach those who remain. At a meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday evening, Russia’s Deputy Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said such calls were “not sincere, and in practice they only underline a aspiration to give Kyiv nationalists a break to regroup and receive more drones, more anti-tank missiles” and anti-aircraft missiles.
In Finland, lawmakers have begun to debate whether to join NATO – the latest example of the war backfiring on Russia’s goals. Mr Putin has sought to prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance, to eliminate the country’s military and political independence and to sow division within NATO.
Instead, Finland and Sweden are poised to abandon their long-standing non-alignment, seeking NATO protection against an aggressive Russia. NATO is increasing its military spending and is more united than it has been in years, and the Ukrainian military has fought a surprisingly tough fight against a larger but often disorganized and demoralized invading force.
The invasion of Ukraine has also left Russia financially and economically ostracized – punctuated at a meeting of the Group of 20 finance ministers on Wednesday. Several attendees, including Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Ukrainian Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko, abruptly left in protest when Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov began speaking.
The United States and other NATO countries have sent huge quantities of weapons to Ukraine, and increasingly these shipments include heavier, more sophisticated and longer-range weapons – artillery from large-caliber, armored vehicles, anti-aircraft missiles and spare parts for damaged aircraft – warnings from the Kremlin.
Even Germany has rolled back a long-standing ban on sending weapons to a conflict zone and increased its own military spending, but calls to go further and send tanks to Ukraine have divided the government in Berlin.
Russia has falsely insisted since the invasion began on February 24 that it was only hitting military targets, but countless smashed, burned and flattened buildings, shops, offices, homes and cars attest to the contrary. In the Donbass town of Avdiivka, near the front lines, where Russian shelling has left a number of civilians dead and injured, and pushed many of those remaining underground, airstrikes have destroyed this week a supermarket and an athletics store in the heart of the city. .
The prolonged shelling and shelling before sending large ground forces into battle reflects a change in Russian strategy from the start of the war, when it tried and failed to quickly seize major cities and other places .
A Russian ground offensive supported by air, land and sea bombardment continues to devastate the southeastern port of Mariupol, now a scene of destruction and casualties on a scale virtually unheard of in Europe since World War II. Ukrainian officials said 20,000 people had been killed there – a figure impossible to verify, with access to the world cut off and many bodies still unrecovered – and around 120,000 of the more than 430,000 pre-war inhabitants of the city remain trapped in ruins, with little access to food, water, electricity or heat.
Ukrainian officials said Wednesday morning that they had reached an agreement with Russian forces to allow children, women and the elderly to leave Mariupol safely, only to say later that the evacuation agreement had been reached. collapsed, like so many before him. “Due to the lack of control over their own army on the spot, the occupiers have not been able to secure a proper ceasefire,” said Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister.
Soldiers and civilians held their ground in a maze of underground bunkers beneath the sprawling Azovstal steelworks complex in the city, defying ultimatums to surrender, as Russian fire focused on that site.
“We are probably facing our last days, if not hours,” Serhiy Volyna, a commander with the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, said in a Facebook video from the factory. “We call on and implore all world leaders to help us.”
He and other Ukrainians said Russian forces bombed a hospital in the Azovstal complex. “We are pulling people out of the rubble,” Sviatoslav Palamar, another commander inside the steel plant, told Radio Liberty.
Azovstal employees say about 4,000 people took refuge under the factory at the start of the war, mostly factory workers and their family members, but many left later. Other civilians sought refuge inside the plant, fleeing the Russian advance and, according to Ukrainian officials, fearing capture and forcible relocation to detention camps in Russia. For the soldiers, Azovstal is the last redoubt of the city.
It is not known how many people remain there. Mr Volyna said 500 of them were injured.
Russia has amassed 76 battlegroups of battalions, each numbering up to 1,000 troops, in southeastern Ukraine, up from 65 a few days ago, the Pentagon said, and about 22 more are just a short distance away. outside Ukraine, regrouping and acquiring new equipment.
Military analysts say Donbass’ flat landscape – with fewer woods, hills and towns than the northern regions where Moscow’s forces have been badly crippled – could favor the Russians.
The very first launch of the Russian Sarmat missile was the latest example of the Kremlin waving its nuclear sabers in the face of stiff opposition from the United States and its allies. Earlier in the war, Mr. Putin ordered that Russian nuclear forces be placed on a higher state of alert, and a senior Russian official spoke of placing nuclear weapons along the borders of the Baltic states.
US officials said those earlier steps apparently had no action behind their impassioned rhetoric and required no response from the United States. They reacted the same way on Wednesday. Both the Pentagon and the White House have said Moscow properly briefed Washington ahead of the Sarmat test.
“Such tests are routine,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. “It was no surprise.”
Like many ICBMs operated by Russia, the United States and other nuclear powers, the Sarmat is designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads, each aimed at a different target, delivered by “independent re-entry vehicles” that the missile releases at the above the atmosphere, as well as decoys, to evade missile defense systems.
Additionally, Russian officials have said these re-entry vehicles could be “hypersonic glide vehicles,” capable of maneuvering en route to their targets, making them even harder to stop. The Sarmat was among the next generation of weapons Mr Putin announced in 2018, describing them as undefendable, but Western analysts have questioned whether glide vehicles and other new technologies already exist or will soon be.
The missile, launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia, hit a target on the Kamchatka Peninsula, 3,500 miles to the east, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Anton Troyanovsky reported from Hamburg, Germany, and Richard Perez-Pena from New York. Reporting was provided by Michael Schwirtz of Avdiivka, Ukraine, Steven Erlanger from Brussels, Marc Santora and Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Poland, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Johanna Lemola from Helsinki, victoria kim from Seoul, Erika Solomon from Berlin, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, Jesus Jiménez of New York, and Katie Rogers and Alan Rappeport of Washington.