Russia pounds Ukraine as Putin holds talks

By Susie Blann

Russian missiles struck cities and villages in eastern and southern Ukraine Tuesday, hitting homes, a school and a community center as Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Iran to discuss a U.N.-backed proposal to unblock exports of Ukrainian grain.

In Kramatorsk, a city in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province that is considered a likely occupation target of Russian forces, neighbors said at least one person was wounded when a five-story residential building was hit.

Fresh blood stained the concrete nearby as apartments on at least two floors burned. In the aftermath of the attack, shrapnel was placed in a small pile near an empty playground.

“There was no one here. Everything is ruined,” the resident of one burned apartment, Halyna Maydannyk, said. “Who knows why they’re doing this? We were all living peacefully.”

Kramatorsk residents Mykola Zavodovskyi and Tetiana Zavodovska stood in bandages outside a local hospital. They said they heard a loud clap and went to their balcony to investigate. Then everything exploded and the windows shattered.

“Probably it was a rocket, and probably it was brought down by Ukrainian forces,” they said.

The strike shortly after noon came after Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko had earlier reported four other Russian strikes in Kramatorsk and urged civilians to evacuate.

Russian forces also fired seven Kalibr cruise missiles overnight at the Odesa region in southern Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry said strikes on the village of Bilenke had a legitimate military goal and “destroyed depots of ammunition for weapons supplied by the United States and European countries.”

A local official disputed Moscow’s claim and said six people were wounded.

“These strikes on peaceful people have one goal – to intimidate the population and the authorities and keep them in constant tension,” Serhiy Bratchuk, the speaker of the Odesa regional government, told Ukrainian television.

Amid indications that Ukraine was planning counterattacks to retake occupied areas, the Russian military in recent weeks has targeted Odesa and parts of southern Ukraine where its troops captured cities earlier in the war.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces on the ground in eastern Ukraine are fighting to hold onto the declining territory under their control.

At least two civilians were killed and 15 more were wounded by Russian shelling across the country over the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said in a morning update.

“There remains a high level of threat of missile strikes throughout the territory of Ukraine,” said Oleksandr Shtupun, spokesman of the General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces.

In eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province, which has been cut off from gas supplies and in part from water and power, one person was killed and two more wounded.

“The infrastructure of the cities is being methodically destroyed by missile strikes, and the civilian population, cut off from bare necessities, suffers the most,” Kyrylenko said in televised remarks.

The missile strikes came as the British military said it believes Russia is facing “increasingly acute” problems in keeping up its troop strength in its grinding war of attrition that began with the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

The British Defense Ministry in a Tuesday morning assessment said that Russia “has struggled to sustain effective offensive combat power since the start of the invasion, and this problem is likely becoming increasingly acute” as Moscow seeks to conquer the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The British military added: “While Russia may still make further territorial gains, their operational tempo and rate of advance is likely to be very slow without a significant operational pause for reorganization and refit.”

In other developments Tuesday:

– Ukraine’s parliament approved President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to dismiss Ivan Bakanov as head of the country’s Security Service, the SBU. Zelenskyy over the weekend removed Bakanov, as well as Iryna Venediktova, who served as Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, over the weekend The parliament separately voted to approve Venediktova’s ouster. As part of the reshuffle, Zelenskyy on Tuesday also fired heads of five regional branches of the SBU and one deputy head of the agency.

– Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, visited Washington at the invitation of the U.S. first lady Jill Biden. Zelenska met Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken assured her of the United States’ commitment to Ukraine, and commended her for her work with civilians dealing with trauma and other damage from the war. Zelenska is expected to meet with Jill Biden on Tuesday.

Associated Press writer Cara Anna contributed from Kramatorsk, Ukraine.