By Andrew E. Kramer
Explosions rocked towns and cities around Ukraine on Thursday morning and electricity went out in several regions as Russia launched what appeared to be one its biggest strikes to date on the country’s energy grid.
The attack combined a swarm of drones and a volley of cruise missiles, the Ukrainian air force said on Facebook. Iranian-made exploding drones, which Russia began acquiring last summer, were launched in a first wave, apparently to bog down air defenses before the cruise missile strikes, it said, adding that its defense forces had shot down 54 of 69 missiles and knocked out drones.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Twitter that Russia had been “saving one of the most massive missile attacks since the beginning of the full-scale invasion for the last days of the year.”
For three months, Russia has launched waves of cruise missiles and drones at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in what military analysts say is a strategy to plunge the country into cold and darkness and to demoralize the population. The volleys have come about every week or two.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said last week that another barrage was expected during the holidays.
“With the approaching holiday season, Russian terrorists may become active again,” he said in a nightly address to Ukrainians. “They despise Christian values and any values in general.”
Air-raid sirens sounded about 5:30 a.m. throughout most of Ukraine. The Ukrainian military’s southern command said two Russian ships in the Black Sea had shown signs suggesting that they were preparing to launch missiles, setting off the alarms.
As the sun rose Thursday, a puffy contrail could be seen looping across the partially cloudy sky over Kyiv — possibly coming from a missile, and a Ukrainian jet, or an air-defense weapon, scrambled in defense.
Seven or eight explosions followed in the capital. One rattled windows and set off car alarms in the city center. It was not clear whether the blasts echoing in the city were from intercepts or strikes by cruise missiles.
Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said on the Telegram messaging app that Ukrainian air defenses had shot down 16 missiles over the city. At least three people, including a 14-year-old, were injured and two people were pulled from a damaged home, he said.
The city government said on Telegram that a house and a car had been damaged by falling debris from a Russian missile shot down over the capital.
“Anti-aircraft defenses are working,” the city said in another statement posted online. “Keep calm! Stay in shelters!”
Authorities in Kharkiv, in the northeast, and in Odesa, in the south, also reported damage from the volley.
The Ukrainian general staff headquarters said in a statement that Russia had launched 13 Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones at energy infrastructure in Kharkiv. The small delta-winged craft are powered by a piston engine with a distinctive buzz that sounds like a chain saw. They are slow flying and relatively easy to shoot down.
The general staff said air-defense systems had shot down 11 of the 13 drones aimed at Kharkiv. In the airspace around the city of Dnipro in southeastern Ukraine, air-defense forces shot down five more drones, according to a statement from the eastern military command.
The cruise missiles followed. The Russian military launched them toward Ukraine from several directions, firing from airplanes and ships at sea, the air force statement said.
The attack comes as Kyiv is striking more boldly at targets deep in Russian territory. Russia’s Defense Ministry said this week that three soldiers were killed after air defenses shot down a Ukrainian drone approaching Engels air base, near Saratov, home to some of Russia’s nuclear-capable strategic bombers that are used to fire cruise missiles at Ukraine.
The governor of Russia’s Saratov region, Roman Busargin, said that Russian air defenses had shot down a drone on Thursday near the city of Engels, damaging a car and garage, but that no one was wounded.
Ukraine maintains a policy of not publicly claiming or denying responsibility for attacks in Russia, even as officials comment approvingly on them.