Ukraine said on Friday it was nearly ready to launch a huge ground assault to retake occupied land, after Russia hurled missiles at cities as people slept overnight, killing at least 25 civilians in its first large-scale air strikes in nearly two months.
The war is coming to a crucial juncture after a months-long Russian winter offensive that gained little ground despite the bloodiest fighting so far. Kyiv is preparing a counteroffensive using hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles sent by the West.
It wants to drive Russia out of the nearly one fifth of Ukraine that it occupies and claims to have annexed.
“As soon as there is God’s will, the weather and a decision by commanders, we will do it,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleskii Reznikov told an online news briefing.
Ukraine was “to a high percentage ready”, he said, with new modern weapons to provide an “iron fist”.
In the central town of Uman, firefighters battled a blaze at a residential apartment building struck on an upper floor by a Russian missile. Officials said at least 23 civilians were killed there, including four children.
Rescue workers clambered through a huge pile of smouldering rubble, carrying a body away on a stretcher. A man wearing a face mask sobbed as he watched, and a woman came to comfort him.
“No one is left,” said Serhii Lubivskyi, 58, who survived inside a flat on the seventh floor. He was rescued by firefighters from the balcony where he escaped with his wife after the explosion blocked their front door.
Lubivskyi wept as he took a deep drag from a cigarette and looked up at the smouldering gaps in the building where adjacent flats had been blasted away. “My neighbours are gone. No one is left,” he said. “Only the kitchens were left standing.”
The wave of Russian missile attacks overnight was the first since early March. Russia had launched such attacks almost weekly for most of the winter, but they tapered off as spring arrived, with Western countries saying Moscow was running out of missiles.
Moscow said the targets of its overnight strikes were locations of Ukrainian reserve troops, which it had struck successfully, preventing them from reaching the front. It supplied no evidence to support this.
In the southeastern city of Dnipro, a missile struck a house, killing a two-year-old child and a 31-year-old woman, regional governor Serhiy Lysak said.
The capital Kyiv was also rocked by explosions in the early hours, as were the central cities of Kremenchuk and Poltava, and Mykolaiv in the south. Two people were wounded in the town of Ukrayinka just south of Kyiv, officials said.
Closer to the front, in Donetsk, an eastern city controlled by Russian proxies since 2014, a Russian-installed official said seven people, including a child, had been killed by Ukrainian shelling that hit a minibus.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the number of casualties or who was to blame. Ukrainian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Ukrainian military said it had shot down 21 out of 23 cruise missiles fired by Russia. Moscow says it does not deliberately target civilians. Kyiv says strikes on cities far from the front lines have no military purpose apart from intimidating and harming civilians, a war crime.
“This Russian terror must face a fair response from Ukraine and the world,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wrote in a Telegram post alongside images of the wreckage. “And it will.”
Along hundreds of kilometres of front, Russia has been fortifying its territory for months in anticipation of Kyiv’s planned assault, widely expected once warmer weather dries out Ukraine’s notorious sucking black mud.
Ukraine made swift gains throughout the second half of 2022, but has kept its forces on the defensive for the past five months. Russia, meanwhile, launched a huge winter campaign using hundreds of thousands of freshly called up reservists and convicts recruited as mercenaries from jail.
But despite the heaviest ground combat in Europe since World War Two, Moscow captured little additional territory, focusing mainly on the small mining city of Bakhmut where Ukrainians have withstood for almost a year.
Kyiv and its Western military backers hope a push by thousands of Ukrainian troops trained at Western bases, using hundreds of newly donated tanks and armoured vehicles, will shift the dynamics of the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was reported on Friday to have signed a decree giving people living in parts of Ukraine under Moscow’s control a path to Russian citizenship. It means those who decline or who do not legalise their status could be deported.
Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February last year, claiming that the Kyiv government posed a threat. Ukraine and its Western allies call it an unprovoked war of conquest.