Russia launched its biggest wave of drone strikes on Ukraine for months on Monday, escalating attacks in the run-up to its May 9 Victory Day holiday celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany, which Kyiv marked a day earlier in a new break with Moscow.
Kyiv’s mayor said Russia had fired 60 Iranian-made kamikaze drones at Ukrainian targets, including 36 at the capital, all of which had been shot down, although debris hit apartments and other buildings, injuring at least five people on the ground.
A food warehouse was set ablaze by a missile in the Black Sea city of Odesa, where officials reported three people were injured.
It was the biggest drone swarm yet in a renewed Russian air campaign unleashed 10 days ago after a lull since early March.
Kyiv said Moscow was also making a final push to try to capture the ruined eastern city of Bakhmut, to deliver President Vladimir Putin what would be his only prize for a costly Russian winter offensive, in time for Victory Day.
Moscow is preparing for Tuesday’s Victory Day parade, the most important day in the calendar for Russia under Putin, who uses the 1945 Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany to justify his invasion of Ukraine.
In a new break with Moscow, Ukraine marked Victory Day on Monday, rather than Tuesday, in line with the practice of its Western allies. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he had signed a decree to officially change the date in future.
The German army’s 1945 surrender took effect late at night on May 8 in Berlin, when it was already May 9 in Moscow, the date that became the Soviet holiday.
Ukraine, as part of the then-Soviet Union overrun by the Nazis, endured higher per capita casualties than Russia in World War Two and was one of the heartlands of European Jewry wiped out in the Holocaust.
“Recalling the heroism of millions of Ukrainians in that war against Nazism, we see the same heroism in the actions of our soldiers today,” said Zelenskiy, who addressed the nation from a hilltop overlooking Kyiv.
“Unfortunately, evil has returned. Just as evil rushed into our towns and villages then, so it does now. As it killed our people then, so it does now,” he said. “And all the old evil that modern Russia is bringing back will be defeated, just as Nazism was defeated.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he believed veterans in Ukraine still held May 9 as the sacred day.
Russia has cancelled or curtailed some of the huge military parades that normally accompany Victory Day. Western countries say this decision arose in part out of security concerns and in part because Moscow has lost so much military hardware in a largely failed winter offensive in Ukraine that has seen the most intense ground combat in Europe since World War Two.
Ukraine, which last year drove Russian forces back from the ramparts of the capital and recovered substantial territory, has kept its troops on the defensive for the past six months, but is preparing a massive counteroffensive in coming weeks.
Russia’s costly winter campaign captured almost no ground, apart from around the small eastern city of Bakhmut. Ukrainian ground forces commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who visited the front line there, said on Sunday: “The Russians still hope to capture the city by May 9. Our task is to prevent this.”
Russian troops in Bakhmut are led by Wagner, a private army that recruited thousands of convicts from prison. Its boss announced last week that he would pull out of Bakhmut, denouncing the regular army for failing to give his fighters enough ammunition, but appeared to reverse himself on Sunday, saying he had now been promised the weapons he needs.
In Kyiv, explosions could be heard through the night. Three people were injured in blasts in the Solomyanskyi district and two when drone wreckage fell in the Sviatoshyn district, both west of the capital’s centre, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram.
Kyiv’s military administration said drone wreckage crashed onto a runway at Zhuliany airport, one of the capital’s two passenger airports, drawing emergency services there, although there was no fire. Drone debris also seemed to have hit a two-storey building in the central district of Shevchenkivskyi, causing damage, it added.
In Odesa, flames completely engulfed a large structure identified as a food warehouse in pictures posted on Telegram by Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesperson for the Odesa military administration.
After air raid alerts blared for hours over roughly two-thirds of Ukraine, local media said explosions sounded in the southern region of Kherson and southeastern Zaporizhzhia.
Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed official in Zaporizhzhia, said Russian forces hit a warehouse and Ukrainian troops’ position in the small city of Orikhiv. Reuters was unable to independently verify the report.
Separately, Russian forces shelled eight spots in Sumy in northeastern Ukraine on Sunday, the regional military administration said in a Facebook post.
Strikes have also intensified in the past two weeks on Russian-held targets, especially in Crimea. Ukraine does not confirm any role in such attacks but says destroying enemy infrastructure is part of its preparation for its long-awaited ground assault.