Russia’s messages with missiles tell West to back off

Russia fired missiles at a crowded shopping centre in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, killing at least 19 people.

Ukraine attack
Ukraine attack

The latest in a litany of horrors in Ukraine came this week as Russian firepower rained down on civilians in a busy shopping centre far from the front lines of a war in its fifth month.

The timing was not likely to have been a coincidence.

While much of the attritional war in Ukraine’s east is hidden from sight, the brutality of Russian missile strikes on a shopping centre in the central city of Kremenchuk and on residential buildings in the capital, Kyiv, unfolded in full view of the world and especially of western leaders gathered for summits in Europe.

Were the attacks a message from Russian president Vladimir Putin as the west sought to arm Ukraine with more effective weapons to bolster its resistance, and to set Ukraine on the path to joining the European Union?

Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko suggested as much when missiles struck the capital on June 26, three days after EU leaders unanimously agreed to make Ukraine a candidate for membership.

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Video claims to show the moment a missile struck the shopping mall in Kremenchuk (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)

It was “maybe a symbolic attack” as the G7 and then Nato leaders prepared to meet and apply further pressure on Moscow, he said.

At least six people were killed in the Kyiv strike on a block of flats.

The former commanding general of US army forces in Europe, retired Lt Gen Ben Hodges, went further in connecting the attack and the meetings.

“The Russians are humiliating the leaders of the west,” he said.

A day after the Kyiv attack, as G7 leaders met in Germany to discuss further support for Ukraine during their annual summit, Russia fired missiles at a crowded shopping centre in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, killing at least 19 people.

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A missile strikes the shopping centre (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP)

The timing of both attacks appeared to be juxtaposed with the European meetings of US president Joe Biden, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron, all supporters of Ukraine.

Defying the evidence, Mr Putin and his officials deny that Russia hit residential areas.

Mr Putin has denied that Russian forces targeted the Kremenchuk centre, saying it was directed at a nearby weapons depot.

But Ukrainian officials and witnesses said a missile hit it directly.

It was hardly the first time that bursts of violence were widely seen as signals of Moscow’s displeasure.

In late April, Russian missiles struck Kyiv barely an hour after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky held a news conference with visiting UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres.

Ukraine graphic
(PA Graphics)

“This says a lot about Russia’s true attitude toward global institutions,” Mr Zelensky said at the time. Kyiv’s mayor called the attack Mr Putin’s way of giving the “middle finger”.

The Russian president recently warned that Moscow would strike targets it had so far spared if the west supplied Ukraine with weapons that could reach Russia.

If Kyiv gets long-range rockets, Russia will “draw appropriate conclusions and use our means of destruction, which we have plenty of”, he said.

On Friday, a day after Russian forces made a high-profile retreat from Snake Island near the Black Sea port city of Odesa following what Ukraine called a barrage of artillery and missile strikes, Russia bombarded residential areas in a coastal town near Odesa and killed at least 21 people, including two children.

While Russia’s messaging can be blunt and devastating, Ukraine’s signals under Mr Zelensky have focused daily on seeking to amplify Moscow’s cruelty to a world that day by day risks becoming weary of the war.

If interest fades, the concerted support seen at global summits could fade, too, and with it the urgency to deliver the heavier weapons that Ukraine craves.

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A damaged residential building in the town of Serhiivka, about 31 miles from Odesa (Nina Lyashonok/AP)

Mr Zelensky tends to pair pleas for more help with reminders that all of Europe ultimately is at stake.

He described the shopping centre attack as “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history”.

For all of Ukraine’s indisputable suffering, it was a bold statement of some hyperbole in the context of extremist attacks with mass deaths in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Madrid and London in this century alone.

For Mr Zelensky and Ukraine, the underlying demand cannot be reiterated enough: provide more heavy weapons, and faster, before Russia perhaps makes irreversible gains in the eastern industrial region of the Donbas, where street-by-street fighting grinds on.

In his nightly public addresses, Mr Zelensky also makes sure to capture the traumatic toll on everyday life in Ukraine, appealing well beyond global leaders to the wider world.

This week he accused Russia of sabotaging “people’s attempts to live a normal life”.

Images of the shopping centre’s smoking debris said the rest.

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