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Dispatch from Ukraine: Russia’s war returns to Kyiv 

Vladimir Putin has suffered setbacks but recent attacks on Ukrainian cities show his willingness to raise the stakes.

By Alix Kroeger

KYIV – The trees around the children’s playground in Taras Shevchenko Park, central Kyiv, have been stripped of their leaves. Some of the trunks have snapped and the windows in the building directly opposite have all been blown out. At this time, there is no information that any children were hurt or killed when a Russian missile landed on this spot shortly after 8am on Monday morning (10 October). A playground is hardly a military target. But as a way to strike at the heart of Ukrainian society – if not morale, because Ukrainians are not cowed – the missile was a direct hit. This is the very centre of Kyiv: the park, the university, the national gallery. It was rush hour when the missile struck; the streets were full. At least six people were killed.

This is the first time that central Kyiv has been attacked since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on 24 February. At least 14 people were killed in strikes on some 12 cities, including Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia and Odesa.In recent months, the immediate impact of the war had receded a little for many Ukrainians. In the south and east of the country, instead of the grinding fight for village after village, Ukrainian forces have succeeded in pushing the Russians back over hundreds of square kilometres of territory. Even the increased nuclear rhetoric from Moscow has left Ukrainians unfazed: blackmail, they call it, though they worry about its effect on their Western allies.   

In the days before the attack, there was jubilation here. Shortly after sunrise on Saturday 8 October, the bridge linking the illegally occupied Crimean peninsula with the Russian mainland was attacked and badly damaged. Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the bridge is a pet project of Vladimir Putin, who drove across it at the official opening in 2018. Both literally and metaphorically, the Kerch bridge ties Crimea to Russia. For it to be so badly damaged, the day after Putin’s 70th birthday, was a very public humiliation for the Russian president. It also narrows the options for resupplying Russian troops in the south.  

Exactly how the bridge attack was carried out is unclear, and the Ukrainian authorities are happy for it to remain so. Was it special forces? A truck bomb? If so, how did it get through Russian checkpoints? Was it on some kind of boat? (Military dolphins, it is safe to say, can be ruled out.) Kyiv has not acknowledged that it was behind the attack and all this speculation only burnishes the mystique of its armed forces.

[See also: Russian strikes on Ukraine’s cities are an implicit nuclear threat

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Putin described the damage to the Kerch bridge as a “terrorist attack… Leaving such a crime without a response is simply impossible”. At a meeting of his security council on 10 October, he said the strikes on Kyiv and other cities were retaliation. But the Kerch bridge is part of Russia’s war infrastructure. The glass bridge over the Dnieper River in Kyiv, which was struck by one of the Russian missiles, carries nothing more threatening than joggers and cyclists.

When the air raid alarm sounded in mid-morning on Monday, I was near Shevchenko Park, roughly 50 metres from where a missile had landed a couple of hours earlier. I went to the shelter in the basement of a university building next to the park. One of the staff shooed me away from a bench under a window because of the risk of flying glass. On the street, a Mini Cooper stood stranded inside the police cordon. There was glass on the front seats and a Ukrainian flag on the dashboard.

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When the sirens went off again in the afternoon, my nearest shelter was in a basement bar opposite my hotel. There, I met Yuliya Goncharova, one of the coordinators of the local volunteer network. She had just returned to Kyiv the night before from Poland, where she had been visiting her children. Her husband, a soldier, is on the front lines in the east; he told her he was safer than she was – on Monday, at least. This was one of the best shelters in the area, she assured me: she knew, because she’d inspected most of them and had been urging the local authorities to make repairs.

“I was expecting this,” she told me. “I was not so much happy about [the Kerch bridge attack] as some of the people were, but I was expecting something. And when it was [Putin’s]  birthday – [the Russians] are very, very predictable.”

Among the buildings damaged in Kyiv was the glass tower that houses the German consulate. Later on Monday, Germany announced it had delivered four air defence systems to Ukraine. More systems will also come from the US, after President Joe Biden spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. But the process is long, and the need is now critical: on Tuesday morning, the sirens wailed once again in Kyiv and across much of the country. Russia has suffered setbacks but this new wave of air strikes shows its willingness to raise the stakes, inaugurating a new and unpredictable phase of the war.

[See also: Vladimir Putin is exposed as a failed war leader

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