Russia is bringing its war against Ukraine closer to the industrial cities of Donetsk with a series of missile strikes against densely populated areas.
On Thursday, two S-300 missiles were fired at the center of the city of Kramatorsk, landing about a minute apart and less than a hundred meters from a CNN team.
An earlier Iskander missile strike had killed four people and hospitalized several more in the same area – an entirely residential zone with shops, a hospital and a clinic. One of those killed was a well-respected school principal, Hanna Valeriivna, weeks before her 48th birthday.
Rescue crews still at the scene had no warning of Thursday’s attack. CNN witnessed the second missile’s last moments in flight before a large fire erupted and smoke billowed into the air.
There were no further fatalities, though at least five civilians were injured. Some people ran in panic from the scene; others seemed fatalistic. “Of course, we are frightened,” said Natalia, a middle-aged woman cowering in a doorway. “But what option do we have?”
The military governor in Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, says there is one option: Leave. “The occupiers will not leave Donetsk region alone until we drive them out of our land. Until then, all civilians must evacuate the region – it is a matter of life and death.”
But his appeal sounds to some like a broken record. Many Ukrainians in the Donetsk region can’t afford to leave their homes, or fear being abandoned in a far-off place away from their familiar community. Ukrainian officials estimate that about half of Kramatorsk’s pre-war population of nearly 150,000 have left; tens of thousands remain in this industrial city, a center for mechanical engineering and steel-making.
The Kramatorsk strikes follow another against the nearby city of Konstantinyvka at the weekend, in which three people were killed. Russian forces trying to encircle the city of Bakhmut a few miles to the east may now be seeking to “soften up” the bigger cities nearby.
Throughout this campaign, Russian forces have combined attacks against Ukrainian forces and infrastructure with seemingly random strikes on urban areas.
This may be in part because many of their missiles are not accurate. The Kh-22 – designed to sink aircraft carriers – killed dozens of people in strikes in Dnipro last month and the city of Kremenchuk last August. The S-300, designed to take down combat aircraft, has been crudely repurposed to hit ground targets.
But it may also be because part of the Russian strategy in this invasion has been to try to sap the morale of ordinary Ukrainians. Kramatorsk’s mayor alluded to that Thursday, saying: “When you see the ruins of the central building in the heart of your city, you lose heart. But now there is no time for that – they are trying to destroy us.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said the strikes against Kramatorsk had destroyed a long-range HIMARS artillery system. But it is inconceivable that the Ukrainians would keep such a high-value weapon in such a public place given its size; they have gone to great lengths to disguise their locations, even building replicas.
The start of a new Russian offensive?
The strikes this week come as a furious battle rages a few miles further east, with Ukrainian artillery and infantry trying to prevent the Russians from encircling Bakhmut and taking the high ground that would make places like Kramatorsk much more vulnerable.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday: “Russia is now concentrating its forces and preparing for an attempt at revenge not only against Ukraine, but also against free Europe and the free world.”
He has said he believes a new Russian offensive – predicted by his commanders in interviews in December – has already started.
Separately, the Ukrainian military’s General Staff said Thursday that Russian forces continue “active reconnaissance and preparation for an offensive in several directions.”
That message is echoed in Ukrainian bunkers the breadth of the battlefield.
In a 10-day tour of frontline positions, CNN has heard multiple Ukrainian commanders say they have seen the Russians bring forward heavier weapons: long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers (MLRS). On Wednesday, in trenches near the town of Krasnohorivka, the sound of Russian GRAD launchers pierced the air every few minutes.
Ukrainian units are seeing more Russian units arriving, a mix of those mobilized last autumn, fighters of the private military company Wagner, Chechen groups and more professional regular units.
Ukrainian intelligence believes that the poor state of Russian military equipment will force the Russian high command to mass forces so as to outnumber Ukrainian defenders. But Ukrainian military officials have also told CNN they have counteroffensive plans of their own.
So far the Ukrainians have held the line throughout the jagged front that runs from the Russian border down through Luhansk region and into Donetsk, and they say they are confident of preventing a Russian breakthrough.
Their greatest need, say officials and officers alike, is long-range missile and artillery systems that can take out Russian hubs that are now far behind the front lines – some beyond even the range of the HIMARS.
And they need a wide and constant pipeline of munitions given the astounding rate at which they are being used.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov sought to reassure allies that Ukraine would not use long-range missiles to strike Russian territory, saying Thursday that Kyiv “is ready to coordinate targets with partners.”
“If we had the opportunity to strike at a range of 300 kilometers, the Russian army would not be able to maintain defenses and would be forced to lose. Ukraine is ready to provide any guarantees that your weapons will not be involved in attacks on Russian territory,” Reznikov said.
Among the air defense weapons most in need, Reznikov said, are Patriot air defense systems (two are pledged), the French-made SAMP/T, which has a range of about 120 kilometers and more of the German IRIS-T, which have been very effective in blunting the Russian missile threat. The Patriot is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles, of which the Russians have copious stocks.
And unless Ukraine receives long-range missile and artillery systems, the Russians may be able to shape the battlefield in their favor, with probing attacks designed to identify weak points in Ukraine’s defenses, supported by massive use of artillery.
Kateryna Stepanenko at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War told CNN that “Russian forces are trying to shape their decisive offensive operation likely around western Luhansk in the direction of northern Donetsk.”
“Russian forces will also likely seek to establish a bridgehead across the Siverskyi Donets River in northern Donetsk, which proved to be a very challenging task for Russian forces in the spring and summer of 2022,” Stepanenko said.
But she doesn’t envisage a multi-pronged Russian offensive because they “have not demonstrated the capacity to sustain multiple simultaneous major offensives,” so will hope to “grind their way through to Donetsk region’s borders before the rains come in the spring,” she said.
The next few months will be a lethal chess game along a front line 1,500 kilometers long.