Putin believes firing missiles into towns across Ukraine will frighten the country into submission—despite the failure of his massive ground invasion. It’s not working.
VINNYTSIA, Ukraine—Smoke and flames rose from the wreckage of burning buildings as the screams of the wounded and dying filled the air. Here was more evidence of President Vladimir Putin’s growing desperation.
Another 24 people—three of them children—paid the ultimate price for the Kremlin’s tragic new strategy. The Russian Army was too weak, ill-disciplined, and under-cooked to make the sweeping gains the Kremlin expected when they launched this illegal war on Ukraine. With the army bogged down and making incremental gains in the eastern Donbas regions, but offering little threat to the rest of Ukraine, Putin has resorted to launching missile strikes against civilian centers all over the country.
The most recent major attack came on Thursday, when a Russian submarine launched Kalibr precision missiles into a concert hall and a medical center in Victory Square in the previously peaceful city of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine. Katya, an employee of the next-door Nova Poshta post office, told The Daily Beast what it was like to become a pawn in Putin’s geopolitical tantrum. “It was the middle of the day and we heard the air raid alarm and started to go to the shelter when the first missile hit buildings just over the street from us. Some of our colleagues were injured when the windows shattered, and the glass flew inside,” she said. “We could see cars on fire outside and smoke everywhere. Our building caught fire as well and we fled.”
Colonel Yuri Ignat of the Ukrainian Air Force, who is a special adviser to the region on air defense, explained that this was no longer conventional warfare. “This is a major terrorist strike by a terrorist state which is striking in peaceful areas and killing our people. What was their purpose, who did they want to hit, what did they want to do? Vinnytsia is not the first city where they kill innocent citizens.”
“Someone is no longer needed. Because they were already covered with a black cloth.”
— Elena Kostakova
While the Kremlin has made slow and painful but real gains in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, its military machine has ground to a halt in all other areas of the country. So instead, Putin has relied on his terrifying arsenal of long-range missiles to terrorize the civilian populations that remain out of range of his troops or artillery. He seems to believe he can weaken Ukraine’s resolve to fight. Since June, Ukrainian officials and international observers have noted a steady uptick in missile strikes causing large numbers of civilian casualties across the country.
Two weeks ago, the Russian Air Force dropped three unguided Kh 22 bombs on Serhiivka, a small seaside town near the port city of Odesa, killing 22 Ukrainians. A few days before that, a strike hit a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, killing 19 people. Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, said in an interview with The Guardian: “We have a system to monitor and track all airstrikes and other attacks in our country and what we have noticed recently is a tendency to destroy more and more civilian targets. They have decided to terrorize civilian population. That’s not my emotions but what our monitoring is telling us.”
Elena Kostakova, a 68-year-old retiree, lived in the apartment block in Serhiivka that was destroyed by a strike. “Everything happened so quickly,” she told The Daily Beast. “I heard the first explosion and ran out. And it saved my life. Because when the second explosion happened, everything flew: both windows and glass. It was terrifying.
“I saw the dead. It’s very creepy. Very scary. People scream. They cry. They ask for an ambulance. The firefighters arrived. Fast too. And someone is no longer needed. Because they were already covered with a black cloth. It was very scary. But now the morning has come. It’s time to clean the glass and get back to normal.”
Despite the suffering Ukrainians continue to show the most remarkable resilience. When The Daily Beast arrived on the scene in Vinnytsia on the evening of the strike, the city authorities had already cleared much of the rubble. Residents of civilians’ homes could be seen from the street repairing broken walls and windows. Katya and her colleagues all had brooms and shovels to sweep up the mess in their offices and planned to be back at work the following week. Authorities were carting out the burned-out orange husks of cars on the back of pickup trucks.
Among the 24 confirmed dead so far was 4-year-old Liza Dmitrieva, a young girl with Down syndrome, whose mother was taking her from a speech therapy class. An Instagram video posted by her mom shortly before the explosion showed a smiling and giggling young girl cheerfully pushing her stroller through town. Now a photo of her torso lying next to her pushchair has now become a symbol for Ukrainians of this new grisly phase of the war defined by senseless death from the sky.
The Kremlin has consistently denied targeting civilians, claiming that it only aims for Ukrainian military facilities. These denials are very difficult to believe. There are no military facilities anywhere near Serhiivka, which is a town many miles from the front and of no strategic importance.
In Vinnytsia, the Russian Naval Forces claim to have been targeting a meeting of Ukrainian Air Force commanders who were meeting with Western weapons suppliers. But Western arms dealers would constitute a legitimate military target and for this reason would almost certainly hold such meetings in a neighboring third country such as Poland.
Instead, many Ukrainians believe that Putin is trying to send a message that everyone in the country is in danger while the country refuses to bow to Russia’s aggression. He would like to be able to put public pressure on Zelensky to sign away Ukrainian territory in the country’s east or to formally acknowledge Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. This would allow Putin to claim a victory to a domestic audience.
By now, residents all over the country have had a brush with death. For Valentine Oleynik, a 26-year-old IT worker who commutes between Kyiv and Vinnytsia, last week’s strike was his second close call of the war.
“My old apartment was just a hundred meters away from the site of the impact. If I had taken the next train, I would probably have been driving through that square just when the rocket hit.” He shrugs and explains that his previous apartment block in Kyiv had been struck twice by missiles.
“The first time you hear an air raid siren you freak out and wonder what the hell is going on. But we’ve been hearing them all the time for months now, so no one really bothers to do anything anymore. We just try to live our lives as normally as possible.”
He casually tells me that “nowhere in Ukraine is safe.” He says this not in a despairing tone but in the way he might say that Odesa or Kyiv have the same chance of light rainfall that afternoon.
“Can you believe that back before 2014 we actually saw the Russians as our friends?! We thought that if anyone ever tried to hurt us from the West, they would be on our side. Now we’ve had eight years of war. I think Ukraine will win this war soon. But now peace is not enough for us. We want justice and we want to see the people who did all these terrible crimes punished for them.”
Instead of forcing Ukrainians into submission, Putin’s terror campaign is hardening their resolve.
In the destroyed center of Vinnytsia’s square is a replica of a World War II fighter plane—a memorial to the Soviet Air Force that helped defeat the Nazi armies. Back then Russian and Ukrainian troops fought as part of one army: now they tear each other apart on the most brutal battlefields Europe has seen since 1945. Several holes have been blown in the plane’s fuselage and wings by missile fragments, but the frame has held together. It looks like a bomber that’s just returned from a daring bombing raid on Berlin.
Standing underneath the monument, Colonel Ignat pointed at the wreckage and said, “The Russians want to bring us to our knees, make us surrender, and wipe us out. But this will never happen, and with the world’s help, we know Ukraine will win.”