Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday arrested a man accused of helping Russia launch a missile attack on a popular pizzeria in eastern Ukraine that killed at least 11 people, including three teenagers.
The Ukrainian National Police said 61 people were wounded in the Kramatorsk attack on Tuesday night. It was the latest bombing of a Ukrainian city, a tactic Russia has used extensively in its 16-month war.
The strike, and others across Ukraine on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, showed the Kremlin was not letting up on its aerial attacks despite domestic political and military turmoil caused by Russia’s brief armed uprising last weekend.
Ukraine has taken no overt military action to take advantage of the turmoil, but the government has been tight-lipped about recent battlefield developments in an attempt to gain momentum in its latest counteroffensive.
The Kremlin was rocked by a mutiny over the weekend led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of Wagner’s personal army, made up of prison recruits and other mercenaries. Wagner played a key fighting role for Russia over Ukraine. The insurgency poses the most serious threat yet to the power of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Seeking to repair the damage to his authority, Putin met with military personnel in the Kremlin on Tuesday and flew to the Caspian city of Derbent, in the Muslim-majority region of Dagestan, on Wednesday on the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha. He toured an ancient castle and a historic mosque, met with officials and walked to cheering crowds by fountains to talk and shake hands – a rarity for the secretive and reserved Russian leader the behavior of.
Prigozhin went into exile in neighboring Belarus on Tuesday after Russia said he would not be charged for the rebellion, according to Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Prigozhin’s whereabouts could not be independently confirmed.
Lukashenko said his country would allow Wagner to set up temporary camps in Belarus, but it was unclear how many mercenaries would move there.
Wagner’s imminent deployment to Belarus has rattled its neighbors. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s ruling party, announced plans to strengthen the country’s eastern border and said some 8,000 Wagner troops were expected to arrive in Belarus.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis noted on Tuesday that the mutiny “demonstrates how quickly contingents within Russia can mobilize and move within its territory,” highlighting “a more intense environment in our region.” unstable and more unpredictable”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky played down concerns that Wagner would pose a threat to Belarus. He said the group’s mercenaries were likely not going there in large numbers, adding that the Ukrainian military was confident that security along the Belarusian border would remain “unchanged and manageable”.
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the unrest had weakened Putin, though he added it was “hard to say” by how much.
“He’s clearly losing the (Ukraine) war,” Biden said of Putin before leaving Washington for Chicago. “He’s losing wars at home and he’s become a pariah around the world.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also said Putin’s weakening by the rebellion showed “cracks in the autocratic structure, the power structure”. He admitted in an interview with German public broadcaster ARD that Germany’s foreign intelligence services were surprised by the rebellion.
The education department of the Kramatorsk city council said two 14-year-old sisters were killed in the attack. “Russian missiles stopped the beating of the hearts of two angels,” it read in the cable.
The other teenager who died was as young as 17, according to Attorney General Andrii Kostin.
Regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said the attack also damaged 18 multi-storey buildings, 65 houses, five schools, two kindergartens, a shopping mall, an administrative building and an entertainment building.
Rescuers are still searching for bodies and more survivors among the rubble. Last year, about six weeks into the war, Russian missiles struck a train station, killing 52 civilians.
Officials initially blamed Tuesday’s attack in Kramatorsk on an S-300 missile, a surface-to-air weapon that the Russian military has repurposed for loosely targeted attacks on cities, but National police later said an Iskander short-range ballistic missile was used.
Kramatorsk is a front-line city that houses the regional headquarters of the Ukrainian army. The pizza restaurant is frequented by journalists, aid workers, soldiers and local residents.
Ukrainian security services said the detained man, an employee of a gas transport company, was suspected of filming the restaurant for Russians and promoting its popularity to them.
It provided no evidence to support its claims. Russia insisted during the war that it did not target civilian targets, even though its airstrikes killed many civilians. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated that claim on Wednesday.
The Russian Ministry of Defense said its forces attacked a facility in Kramatorsk used by Ukrainian military officers, but did not mention the pizzeria that was hit.
Located in Donetsk, Kramatorsk is one of four Ukrainian provinces that Russia annexed but did not fully control last September. Russia also annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.
The Kremlin has demanded that Kiev recognize the annexation, while Kiev has ruled out any talks until Russian troops withdraw from all occupied territories.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Wednesday that the biggest obstacle to peace talks right now is “Putin’s conviction that he can outlive Ukraine, and he can outlive all of us.”
“The more we can reassure him of that, the more likely he will be at the negotiating table at some point,” Blinken told the Council on Foreign Relations, adding that a NATO summit in Lithuania in two weeks’ time will Offer Ukraine “a very strong package, both politically and practically”.