Russia rained missiles on cities across Ukraine on Tuesday in a salvo of strikes that follow its humiliating withdrawal from Kherson, even as signs grew that its retreating forces were pulling even further back from the Dnipro River in the south.
Air raid sirens blared and explosions rang out in nearly a dozen major cities after one of the biggest volleys of missiles so far, following a pattern in recent weeks of Moscow lashing out far from the front after battlefield losses.
In the capital Kyiv, flames poured out of a five-storey apartment block, one of two residential buildings the authorities said had been struck there. Reuters journalists who reached the scene saw residents huddled by the smouldering ruin. The mayor said one person was confirmed killed and half the capital left without power.
Other strikes or explosions were reported in cities from Lviv and Zhytomyr in the west to Kryvy Rih in the south and Kharkiv in the east. Regional officials reported some of the attacks had knocked out electricity supplies.
The widespread attacks came four days after Russian troops abandoned Kherson city in the south, the only regional capital Moscow had captured since its invasion, six weeks after President Vladimir Putin declared it an eternal part of Russia.
Russia had said last week its troops would occupy positions that were easier to defend on the opposite bank of the Dnipro River. But video images filmed in the town of Oleshky, across a collapsed bridge from Kherson, appeared to show Russian forces had abandoned their bunkers there too.
Further east, Russian-installed administrators said they were pulling out civil servants from the region’s second biggest city, Nova Kakhovka, located on the river bank next to a huge, strategic dam.
Natalya Humenyuk, a Ukrainian military spokesperson, said Moscow appeared to be repositioning its artillery 15-20 km (10-15 miles) further from the river, to protect its guns from Ukrainian counterstrikes.
“There is a certain activity of enemy troops on the left bank of the Dnipro in terms of moving 15-20 km away from the bank,” she said. Russia had artillery still capable of striking Kherson from those new positions, but “we also have something to answer with”, she said.
A day after visiting Kherson to celebrate the victory there, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told world leaders there would be no let-up in Ukraine’s military campaign to drive Russian troops out of his country.
“We will not allow Russia to wait it out, build up its forces, and then start a new series of terror and global destabilisation,” he said in an address by video link to a summit of the G20 big economies in Indonesia.
“I am convinced now is the time when the Russian destructive war must and can be stopped.”
Tuesday’s air strikes follow a pattern Russia has maintained since mid-October of launching long-range missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian cities after battlefield setbacks. Moscow has said it is attacking energy infrastructure. Kyiv says such strikes only stiffen its citizens’ resolve.
“Russia responds to Zelenskiy’s powerful speech at G20 with a new missile attack. Does anyone seriously think that the Kremlin really wants peace? It wants obedience. But at the end of the day, terrorists always lose,” Zelenskiy’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak tweeted.
Before pulling out of Kherson last week, Russia had said it was moving its forces across the Dnipro to better defend territory including the approaches to the strategic Crimea peninsula, which Russia has held since 2014.
But in video filmed in Oleshky, across the river from Kherson on the main highway two hours’ drive to Crimea, there was no sign of any Russian presence.
A driver raced down the deserted main road for miles at high speed without encountering a single Russian checkpoint or flag. Several bunkers set up along the road appeared to have been abandoned. The location of the video was confirmed by Reuters based on visible landmarks.
In Nova Kakhovka, the Russian-installed administration said on Tuesday civil servants had left to escape shelling, “and were relocated to safe areas in the region”.
There were no confirmed reports that Ukrainian troops had crossed the river to pursue the Russians. But some analysts said Ukraine might attempt to press its advantage on the battlefield, rather than take a so-called “operational pause” following the advances of recent days.
“Ukraine has the initiative and momentum and is dictating to the Russians where and when the next fight will be,” said Philip Ingram, a former senior British military intelligence officer.
The war was a central focus of the G20 summit on the Indonesian island of Bali, where Western leaders denounced Moscow. Russia is a member and Ukraine is not, but Russian President Vladimir Putin stayed home.
Speaking to the summit, Zelenskiy described a peace proposal in which Russia would withdraw all its forces, free all prisoners and reaffirm Ukraine’s territorial integrity, all longstanding demands.
He proposed indefinitely extending a programme to safeguard Ukrainian grain exports to help feed poor countries, expanding it to the port of Mykolaiv, newly beyond reach of Russian guns after the Kherson advance.
Western countries pushed for a summit declaration that would condemn the war, despite Russia’s opposition and a lack of unanimity. Diplomats circulated a 16-page draft that said: “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s delegation head in Putin’s absence, accused the West of trying to politicise the declaration.