by Daphne ROUSSEAU
Russia pounded a Ukrainian rocket factory following the sinking of its Black Sea flagship, as President Volodymyr Zelensky said his allies could shorten the war by delivering the weapons he had requested.
The Vizar factory, near Kyiv’s international airport, was seriously damaged in the overnight strikes, an AFP journalist saw on Friday.
Russia said it had used sea-based long-range missiles to hit the plant, which Ukraine’s state weapons manufacturer says produced Neptune cruise missiles — the projectiles both Kyiv and Washington say were used to sink the Moskva warship.
“There were five hits. My employee was in the office and got thrown off his feet by the blast,” Andrei Sizov, the 47-year-old owner of a nearby wood workshop, told AFP.
“They are making us pay for destroying the Moskva,” he said.
A Pentagon official briefing reporters said the ship had been hit with two Neptunes — contradicting Russia’s claim that the ship lost balance in rough seas as it was towed to port after ammunition exploded.
The Moskva had been leading Russia’s naval effort in the seven-week conflict, and the fate of its crew of more than 500 was uncertain.
The Pentagon official said survivors were observed being recovered by other Russian vessels, but Ukrainian authorities said bad weather had made rescue operations impossible.
The Russian fleet in the Black Sea has been blockading the besieged port city of Mariupol, where Russian officials say they are in full control although Ukrainian fighters are still holed up in the city’s fortress-like steelworks.
– Weapons plea –
In his nightly address, Zelensky made another plea for allies to send more firepower to boost the defence efforts.
“You can make the war much shorter,” he said. “The more and the sooner we get all the weapons we have requested, the stronger our position will be and the sooner peace will come.”
The head of Ukraine’s army had made a similar point in a phone call to the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, the military said on Saturday.
The United States has already pledged a new $800-million military aid package for Ukraine this week, including helicopters, howitzers and armoured personnel carriers, and on Friday the German government said it plans to release more than a billion euros ($1.1 billion) in aid as well.
US media reported that Russia had sent a formal complaint to Washington about its support of Kyiv this week.
In the diplomatic note, Moscow warned the United States and NATO against sending the “most sensitive” weapons, saying such shipments were “adding fuel” to the situation and could come with “unpredictable consequences”, the Washington Post reported.
Zelensky warned Friday that Russia might use nuclear weapons out of desperation as its invasion falters, echoing recent comments by CIA director William Burns.
“They could do it, I mean they can,” Zelensky told CNN. “For them, life of the people is nothing.”
– ‘Wait for quieter times’ –
The attack on the Vizar factory was the first major Russian strike around the Ukrainian capital in more than two weeks.
Russian forces last month started withdrawing from around Kyiv as they were redeployed to focus on the east of the country, but the city remains vulnerable to missiles.
Kyiv regional governor Oleksandr Pavliuk said there were at least two other Russian strikes on the city Friday, adding civilians thinking about returning should “wait for quieter times.”
The Russian defence ministry has in fact warned it will target Kyiv “in response to any terrorist attacks or sabotage committed by the Kyiv nationalist regime on Russian territory”.
For now, Russia’s military focus seems set on seizing the eastern Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists control the Donetsk and Lugansk areas.
This would allow Moscow to create a southern corridor to the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Ukrainian authorities have been urging people in the region to quickly move west in advance of a large-scale Russian offensive.
The UN’s World Food Programme has appealed for access to those who cannot get out.
“It’s one thing when people are suffering from the devastation of war. It’s another thing when they’re being starved to death,” WFP director David Beasley said in a statement.
– Shelling in Kharkiv –
Ahead of the anticipated Russian push, towns and cities in the east been subjected to what residents say is incessant shelling.
On Friday AFP witnessed the aftermath of several strikes in the industrial district of Kharkiv, where authorities said 10 people were killed and 35 injured.
The charred remains of three rockets were visible, and around a dozen football-sized craters were spotted across the area AFP saw in a short visit.
One 38-year-old man was killed when shrapnel burst into his apartment as he smoked by the window.
“Everything started, the glass fell down and I saw him lying in a pool of blood,” his mother said. “I told him before that we should leave. He said we should stay.”
For its part, Russia on Friday claimed Ukraine was preparing a missile strike on its own refugees at a railway station in the Kharkiv region, in the town of Lozova.
The allegations echoed Russia’s widely dismissed claim that Kyiv was responsible for a missile strike on April 18 that killed scores at another railway station.
Moscow has been accused of widespread war crimes by Ukraine and its allies, and international experts have already arrived in the country to begin investigations.
A team of French experts has been working for several days in the town of Bucha, which has become synonymous with alleged Russian atrocities.
Local authorities say hundreds were killed there, and on Friday the region’s police chief said 95 percent died from gunshot wounds.
– Financial support –
As well as military aid, Zelensky appealed for financial support in his address late Friday.
“The sooner the democratic world recognises that the oil embargo against Russia and the complete blockade of its banking sector are necessary steps towards peace, the sooner the war will end,” he said.
Last week European countries announced expanded efforts to wean themselves off Russian gas, and Germany on Friday released nearly three billion euros ($3.2 billion) to acquire floating liquefied natural gas import terminals.
But Berlin does not consider it realistic to be able to do without Russian gas before mid-2024.
The war in Ukraine has also had a profound effect on European countries’ security considerations, with Finland and Sweden considering joining NATO.
Moscow, which invaded Ukraine partly because of deepening ties between Kyiv and NATO, on Friday warned of consequences should they join the US-led defence alliance.
“They will automatically find themselves on the NATO frontline,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Shortly afterwards, Finland’s European Affairs Minister Tytti Tuppurainen said it was “highly likely” that her country would apply for NATO membership.
Unlike Sweden, Finland neighbours Russia, from which it declared independence in 1917 after 150 years of Russian rule.
— Agence France-Presse VIDEO