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Russia fires barrage of hypersonic missiles, piercing Ukrainian air defenses

Local residents gather near a crater after a rocket hit the Pisochyn neighborhood outside Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Pavlo Pakhomenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces launched dozens of missiles and drones across Ukraine early Thursday — including hypersonic missiles that Ukrainian air defenses cannot intercept — killing at least six people and damaging critical infrastructure or residential buildings in 10 regions, including the capital.

At least five of the dead were killed at home in a village in the western region of Lviv, far from the front-line combat zones in the country’s east. The sixth was killed in the central Dnipropetrovsk region, where two people also were wounded. Another two were wounded in Kyiv.

Ukrainian officials also said the strikes cut off the last remaining external power line to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is in territory occupied by Russia, forcing the plant, Europe’s largest, to rely on generator power. The outage, which was fixed by early afternoon, came a day after a visit to Kyiv by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who reiterated his calls for an internationally brokered “demilitarized zone” around the power plant.

Speaking Wednesday in Kyiv, where he met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Guterres said: “The position of the United Nations, which I have consistently expressed, is crystal clear: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of the U.N. Charter and international law.”

The overnight and early-morning barrage Thursday — which included 81 missiles of different types as well as Iranian-made drones — sent a clear message from Moscow that Russia would not be cowed by international pressure into abandoning its war aims, which include the illegal annexation of at least four regions in southeast Ukraine.

Thursday’s airstrikes marked the first time in weeks that Russia sent such a varied range of high-powered missiles raining down on Ukraine, after a brief pause in the relentless bombing campaign against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure that started in October and continued roughly through mid-February.

The regular attacks that started late last year were part of a concerted Russian drive to cut power and heat to Ukrainian citizens during the coldest months. Russian officials insisted that the strikes are intended to slow Ukraine down on the battlefield. Bombing civilian targets with no military value is a potential war crime.

Ukrainian officials have said the airstrikes were designed to weaken Ukrainian resolve, and on March 1 — the official first day of spring — the country celebrated both the new season and its survival of the Russian bombardment.

Then Russia launched another round.

“What was special about last night’s attack is that they fired six Kinzhal missiles at once,” Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said by telephone, referring to Russia’s hypersonic weapons. The entire barrage was launched from different points, he said — from Russia’s Kursk region, as well as from the Caspian, Azov and Black seas.

The Kinzhal hypersonic missiles Russian used Thursday were first fired against Ukraine last March and have been used several times since, with Ukrainian officials noting that their air defenses are powerless to stop them because of their speed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted in 2018 that the missiles travel at 10 times the speed of sound. Last March, President Biden said the missiles were “almost impossible to stop.”

A large plume of black smoke was seen over Kyiv after Russian missiles struck the capital on March 9. Cars and residential buildings were hit in the strikes. (Video: Reuters)

In January, Ukrainian officials blamed one such missile for the deadly strike that eviscerated a section of a large apartment complex in the city of Dnipro, killing at least 46 people.

Russia has a limited supply of such missiles and has never sent so many into Ukraine in a single attack. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov claimed in November that Russia had used 16 Kinzhal missiles over the course of the war and retained a stock of 42 missiles after replacing those it had fired.

Ihnat said that Ukraine’s air defense systems were capable of intercepting 48 of the 81 missiles that were fired Thursday. Of these, Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down 34 missiles. “This is a good sign,” Ihnat said.

“Of course, we would like more, but this was the number shot down,” he said. “It was a very large mass attack, with a large concentration of force and means, all at the same time.”

To see Russia’s secret antiwar art: Meet at a bus stop. At dark. Phones off.

Ukrainian forces hoped that advanced air defense systems, which Ukraine’s Western allies have promised Kyiv and have begun to arrive in the country, will be able to shoot down the Kinzhals, which fly an unusual ballistic trajectory, making them hard to intercept, Ihnat said.

The Patriot surface-to-air missile system, for example, is believed to be able to destroy them. “But are the Patriots capable of intercepting them?” Ihnat said. “This will be shown only in practice.”

Ukrainian officials have pleaded for their Western supporters, including the United States, to share stronger air defense systems such as the Patriot, to help stop attacks that are undetectable with Ukraine’s existing hardware.

The head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Andriy Yermak, reported on Telegram that in addition to the missile strikes, Russian artillery shelling had killed three people in the southern city of Kherson. The Russian invaders had occupied Kherson for months, and since retreating in November have been bombarding it mercilessly from the east side of the Dnieper River.

With Ukraine’s nuclear energy operator, Energoatom, warning that backup generators could keep electricity flowing to the giant power station for only 10 days, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, urged immediate action. The power station needs an uninterrupted supply of electricity to maintain its nuclear material in a safe condition.

“Each time we are rolling a dice,” Grossi said in a statement Thursday. “And if we allow this to continue time after time then one day our luck will run out.” By Thursday afternoon, Energoatom issued a statement saying the electricity had been restored.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Putin had no plans yet to speak to Guterres, whose discussions with Zelensky focused in part on a potential extension of the Black Sea grain deal, which protects the export of Ukrainian grain, which is relied on by many developing countries.

In race to arm Ukraine, U.S. faces cracks in its manufacturing might

On Wednesday, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told senators that Putin is facing “considerable constraints.”

Prolonging the war in Ukraine, she said, may be what he sees as his “best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued in the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance as Ukraine has refused to surrender control to massive waves of Russian fighters, including many untrained mercenaries recruited from Russian prisons.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that Russia has “suffered big losses but at the same time we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days.”

The same day, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force, posted a video claiming his troops were fully in control of neighborhoods east of the Bakhmutka River, which cuts through the city eastern Donetsk.

Russian forces have closed in on Ukrainian troops from three sides, leaving only one major road available for travel in and out of the city. That road is within range of Russian artillery, making the journey perilous.

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.