Russia launched a barrage of missiles at Ukraine’s capital from neighboring Belarus early Thursday as Kyiv’s counteroffensive in the crucial city of Kherson appeared to be gathering momentum. At least 20 missiles were fired from Belarus, Moscow’s key ally in its 5-month-old invasion of Ukraine, striking an apartment block in the Chernihiv region and buildings outside the country’s capital.
Ukrainian forces in the east, bolstered by U.S.- and Western-supplied weaponry, were poised to launch the first major counterattack of the war, aiming to reclaim land taken by Russian forces and their separatist allies around the strategic city of Kherson.
The Russian barrage Thursday also highlighted the role of Moscow’s ally Belarus in the fighting. Minsk has backed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and provided key staging areas and invasion routes while trying to keep from directly joining the fighting with its neighbor to the south.
The Kremlin confirmed it had received an offer from the Biden administration but said no firm agreement had been reached on a prisoner swap that could secure the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan from Russian detention.
Moscow was responding to a “substantial” proposal from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that would likely spring a high-level Russian prisoner — possibly convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout — from a U.S. prison in exchange for the Americans.
“Look, since there are no agreements now that would be finalized, then, accordingly, I have nothing more to add to what has been said,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters from multiple outlets on his daily conference call.
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Ms. Griner, who played basketball in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason, admitted having vape cartridges with cannabis in her luggage in February but insisted she didn’t intend to violate the law. Mr. Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 after he was convicted on espionage charges. He has repeatedly denied being a spy.
The Biden administration is in a tough spot regarding the potential prisoner swap. Although it doesn’t want to encourage hostage-taking by adversaries hoping to influence U.S. policy, the White House is under intense pressure to bring Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan back home.
Casualties and a counterattack
In Ukraine, officials from Kyiv’s Operational Command North confirmed there had been casualties from the missile attack in Chernihiv, about 90 miles from Kyiv, but the exact figures had not been determined.
“Twenty-five missiles in under an hour. Russia has gone mad this morning, attacking Kyiv and Chernihiv regions. The launchpad is Belarus,” Ukrainian lawmaker Lesia Vasylenko said in a Twitter message.
The Guardian newspaper reported that the missiles were launched from an airport near Gomel in southeastern Belarus. The attack prompted a fierce condemnation from Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled opposition leader challenging longtime Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
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“Horrified to see how Russia continues to use Belarus to attack Ukraine,” she tweeted. Mr. Lukashenko, she said, “can’t fool anyone. He is guilty of crimes against Belarusians and Ukrainians and must be held accountable.”
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, also came under a barrage of shelling overnight, its mayor told The Associated Press.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday that economic sanctions against Russia are important but added that tougher action is needed.
“Even if Russia says everywhere in the media that they do not have problems [over] sanctions, it is not true,” Mr. Zelenskyy told reporters after a meeting with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda. “Sanctions are a great help from all European countries.”
Ukraine wants even tougher sanctions imposed on Russia, including disconnecting the country’s banking system from the international SWIFT financial clearinghouse, a key pillar of the financial world that banks use to securely send messages to one another.
Having fought off the initial Russian onslaught in the spring and then ceded territory around the breakaway separatist enclaves in Luhansk and Donetsk in the east, Ukraine’s military appears to be mustering its forces for its first major counteroffensive in the disputed Donbas region. The target, analysts say, is Kherson, a major economic center in the southern section of the country.
It would be a strategic and symbolic breakthrough for the Zelenskyy government. Kherson was the first large city to fall when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in late February.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich told reporters in Kyiv that the operation to retake Kherson was underway. Kyiv’s forces planned to isolate Russian troops and leave them with three options: “retreat, if possible, surrender or be destroyed.”
Russia is reportedly moving to reinforce its positions in the city, and a major battle could be brewing. For once, though, it is the Ukrainian fighters who have the initiative.
“Their forces have likely established a bridgehead south of the Ingulets River, which forms the northern boundary of Russian-occupied Kherson,” the British Defense Ministry said in one of its latest intelligence assessments of the fighting. “Ukraine has used its new long-range artillery to damage at least three of the bridges across the Dnipro River, which Russia relies on to resupply the area under its control.”
Key to the counteroffensive, Ukrainian military officials say, has been the stream of Western-supplied missile systems that have allowed Ukraine to target Russian depots and other sensitive sites far from the front lines.
“Russia’s 49th Army is stationed on the west bank of the Dnipro River and now looks highly vulnerable,” British officials said this week in a Twitter message.
Kherson is now essentially cut off from the other occupied territories controlled by Russian forces inside Ukraine. A loss would “severely undermine” Russia’s attempt to paint its occupation as a success, British officials said.
Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center for Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said it would be difficult to overestimate the significance of Russia’s loss if Ukraine can retake Kherson.
“It would be a major operational win,” he said Thursday during an interview with the Euronews television network. “It would show that the combination of Ukrainian bravery and sacrifice, when armed with Western weapons — including the American High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) — can be incredibly effective.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.