Ukraine aims to break Russia’s siege of Mariupol as Kyiv hit by explosions

US believes Russian warship was hit by Ukrainian missiles, defence official says

Ukraine said on Friday it was trying to break Russian forces' siege of Mariupol, with fighting raging around the city's Illich steel works and port, as the capital Kyiv was rocked by some of the most powerful explosions in two weeks.

Russia said it had struck overnight what it said was a factory in Kyiv that made and repaired anti-ship missiles, in apparent retaliation for the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Moscow's Black Sea fleet, on Thursday.

Ukraine said one of its missiles had caused the Moskva to sink, in a powerful symbol of its resistance to a better-armed foe. Moscow said the ship sank while being towed in stormy seas after a fire caused by an explosion of ammunition.

The US military now believes that Moskva was struck by Ukrainian missiles.

And after more than a day of the Pentagon saying it could not confirm claims made by Ukrainians that they had hit the Russian Black Sea flagship, a senior US defence official on Friday said it now believes the Moskva was hit on Wednesday by at least one, and probably two, missiles, creating the large fire aboard.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an intelligence assessment.

The Moskva, a guided missile cruiser, then sank while being towed to port on Thursday after suffering heavy damage.

Moscow has acknowledged that the ship had sunk but has not confirmed that it had been attacked by Ukrainians. Russia has previously said more than 500 sailors on board the Moskva were evacuated after the blast.

Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, has seen the worst fighting of the war. Home to 400,000 people before Russia's invasion, the city has been reduced to rubble in seven weeks of siege and bombardment. Thousands of civilians have died and tens of thousands are still trapped in the city.

“The situation in Mariupol is difficult and hard. Fighting is happening right now. The Russian army is constantly calling on additional units to storm the city,” defence ministry spokesperson Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.

“But as of now the Russians haven’t managed to completely capture it,” he told a televised briefing. Mr Motuzyanyk said Russia had used long-range bombers to attack Mariupol for the first time since its February 24th invasion, and that elsewhere Russian forces were concentrating efforts on seizing the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna in Ukraine’s east.

Moscow has said its main war aim is to capture the Donbas, an eastern region of two provinces that are already partly held by the Russian-backed separatists, after its invasion force was driven from the outskirts of Kyiv earlier this month.

Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 2,864 people had been evacuated from conflict areas on Friday, including 363 people from Mariupol who used their own transport.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy recently made a direct appeal to US president Joe Biden for the United States to designate Russia a "state sponsor of terrorism," the Washington Post reported on Friday, citing people familiar with their conversation.

The list currently includes four countries: North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Syria. A White House spokesperson declined to respond specifically to the report, adding, “We will continue to consider all options to increase the pressure on Putin.”

Mariupol targeted

Mariupol is Russia’s main target in the Donbas and Moscow has said it hopes to seize it soon, which would make it the only big city captured so far.

Russia’s defence ministry said it had captured the Illich steel works. The report could not be confirmed.

Ukrainian defenders are mainly believed to be holding out in Azovstal, another huge steel works. Both plants are owned by Metinvest – the empire of Ukraine’s richest businessman and backbone of Ukraine’s industrial east – which told Reuters on Friday it would never let its enterprises operate under Russian occupation.

“We believe in the victory of Ukraine and plan to resume production after the end of hostilities,” Metinvest told Reuters in a statement, adding its sites were damaged but that it was impossible to say by how much while fighting continued.

Mr Motuzyanyk called Russia’s loss of the Moskva significant. But he said he was not authorised to give information on the factory near Kyiv, which Moscow said its missiles had struck.

The Moskva was by far Russia’s largest vessel in the Black Sea fleet, equipped with guided missiles to shoot down planes and attack the shore. It had radar to provide air defence cover for the fleet. Moscow has used its naval power to blockade Ukrainian ports and threaten a potential amphibious landing along the coast.

Without its flagship, its ability to menace Ukraine from the sea could be crippled. It was the largest warship to be sunk during conflict since the British torpedoed Argentina’s General Belgrano in the 1982 Falklands war.

Strikes on Kyiv

Russia’s defence ministry said its forces would step up strikes on Kyiv. “The number and scale of missile strikes on targets in Kyiv will increase in response to any terrorist attacks or acts of sabotage on Russian territory committed by the Kyiv nationalist regime,” the defence ministry said.

Kirill Kyrylo (38), a worker at a car repair shop in the Ukrainian capital, said he had seen three blasts hit an industrial building, causing a blaze that was put out by firefighters. “The building was on fire and I had to hide behind my car,” he said, pointing out the shattered glass of the repair shop and bits of metal that had flown over from the burning building.

Moscow reported that Russian villages in the Belgorod region near the border had been hit by Ukrainian shelling. Attacks in the area, a major staging ground for Russia’s invasion, could not be confirmed. Russia initially described its aims in Ukraine as disarming its neighbour and defeating nationalists there.

Kyiv and its Western allies say those are bogus justifications for an unprovoked war of aggression that has driven a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people from their homes and led to the deaths of thousands. – Additional reporting by Reuters

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent