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Russia hits civilian targets anew, EU officials visit Kyiv

By SUSIE BLANN, Associated Press
Published: February 2, 2023, 7:42am
5 Photos
An aerial view of apartment buildings hit by Russian rockets in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023.
An aerial view of apartment buildings hit by Russian rockets in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Yevgen Honcharenko) Photo Gallery

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian missiles hit residential areas in an eastern Ukrainian city Thursday for the second time in 24 hours, while top European Union officials held talks with the government in Kyiv as the war with Russia approaches its one-year milestone.

The latest strikes in Kramatorsk came as rescue crews searched for survivors in the rubble of an apartment building hit late Wednesday by a Russian missile that killed at least three people and wounded 21 others. At least one more victim was thought to be under the debris, Ukraine’s presidential office said.

“Kramatorsk again shattered by explosions — the Russians made two more rocket strikes,” regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote in a Telegram post.

He said at least five civilians were wounded in the latest strikes, which hit residential buildings as well as a children’s clinic and a school in the heart of the city. Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko urged residents to stay in shelters.

Kramatorsk is a major hub for the Ukrainian military in the east.

No further details of Thursday’s attack were immediately available.

Russia has frequently struck apartment buildings during the war, causing civilian casualties, although the Kremlin has denied targeting residential structures.

Russian shelling across Ukraine over the previous 24 hours killed at least eight civilians and wounded 29 others, the presidential office said. Along with the victims in Kramatorsk, the toll included four who died when a Russian mortar shell hit a basement where they were sheltering in the northeastern Chernihiv region.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen ahead of what officials described as a summit on Friday. The last such summit was held in Kyiv in October 2021 — a few months before the war started on Feb. 24, 2022.

Von der Leyen praised wartime Ukraine’s “brilliant application” for European Union membership, though Brussels officials note that Ukraine joining the 27-nation bloc is still a long way off.

Ahead of possible membership, Von der Leyen said, the Commission is proposing that Kyiv “join key European programs — this will give Ukraine benefits close to those of EU membership in many areas.”

EU assistance for Ukraine, she said, has reached 50 billion euros ($55 billion) since the start of Russia’s war.

She said the EU plans to adopt a 10th package of sanctions again Russia before Feb. 24. Von der Leyen also announced that the International Center for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression in Ukraine would be set up in The Hague to coordinate the collection of evidence of war crimes.

Von der Leyen, on her fourth visit to Kyiv since Russia’s invasion, added that she was “comforted” by Ukraine’s anti-corruption drive. Stamping out endemic corruption is a key condition for joining the EU.

Zelenskyy on Wednesday took aim at corrupt officials for the second time in the space of a week. Several high-ranking officials were dismissed.

Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft.

The latest corruption allegations came as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars to help Kyiv fight Moscow’s forces and as the Ukrainian government is introducing reforms so it can potentially join the EU.

Ukraine’s government is keen to get more Western military aid, on top of the tanks pledged last week, as the warring sides are expected to launch new offensives once winter ends. Kyiv is now asking for fighter jets.

Kyiv expects Russia to “attempt something” on the Feb. 24 anniversary, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told France’s BFM television. He stressed his government’s urgency on getting weapons without delay.

“We are telling our partners that we too need to be ready as fast as possible,” he said in an interview late Wednesday.

U.S. President Joe Biden has ruled out providing F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday during a trip to the Philippines that the focus of American aid is to increase Ukraine’s military capabilities by sending artillery, armor and air defense, and training Ukrainian troops.

The U.S. is “focused on providing Ukraine the capability that it needs to be effective in its upcoming anticipated counteroffensive in the spring,” Austin said.

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“And so we’re doing everything we can to get them the capabilities that they need right now to be effective on the battlefield,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that strategy would backfire, by prompting Moscow to ensure that potential Russian targets were out of range.

“The longer range the weapons supplied to the Kyiv regime, the farther we would need to push them away from the territories that are part of our country,” Lavrov said in an interview with Russian state media.

He said Moscow would like to see the war end, but noted that the length of the conflict was less important than its desired outcome: to protect Russian territory and “people who want to remain part of the Russian culture,” reaffirming Moscow’s declared goal to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin drew on national pride at a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in the World War II battle of Stalingrad as he sought to stiffen support at home for the fight in Ukraine, where the Kremlin’s forces have suffered some embarrassing setbacks in recent months.

“The strength of the defenders of Stalingrad is the most important moral beacon for Russian soldiers,” he said in Volgograd, as Stalingrad was renamed in 1961. “All that defines Russia and makes us strong and confident in ourselves, the rightness of our cause and our victory.”