Ukraine has been struggling to repel a wave of Russian strikes against the southern city of Odesa, its air defenses unable to cope with the types of missiles that Moscow has used to pummel the region this week.
Ukraine’s Air Force said it destroyed just five of 19 Russian cruise missiles fired at the country overnight into Thursday. That’s a significantly lower success rate compared to previous waves targeting Kyiv and Ukrainian officials said it was due to the lack of more advances defense systems in the southern part of the country.
By Friday, people in Odesa have now endured four nights of bombardment. A CNN team began hearing explosions at around 2 a.m. on Thursday. The near continuous strikes lasted at least 90 minutes, the buzzing sound of drones reverberating through the port city. Then air raid sirens begun howling again at around 3 a.m. on Friday, as Russian troops fired more missiles from the Black Sea.
As Thursday’s bombardment got underway, officials warned residents to take cover. “Go to your shelters and don’t leave until the siren ends. Take care of yourself and your loved ones,” the head of the Odesa region’s military administration, Oleh Kiper, said in a post on Telegram.
Russia has launched a wide variety of projectiles, including Oniks cruise missiles and Kh-22 anti-ship missiles, Kalibr sea-based cruise missiles, Iskander ballistic missiles, and 19 Iranian-made Shahed drones.
Speaking on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia used almost 70 missiles of various types and almost 90 Shahed drones in just four days in attacks on southern Ukraine. Those numbers do not include the latest barrage that Russia fired on Friday.
Ukrainian officials said the air defense systems in the region are not capable of shooting down Russia’s Oniks and Kh-22 missiles because of how fast they fly. “What could be shot down is being shot down,” Yurii Ihnat, spokesperson for the Air Force Command of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said. “Of course, we would like to shoot down more.”
Ihnat said the Oniks missiles fly at a speed of more than 3,000 kilometers per hour (1,850 miles per hour) at a high altitude and then quickly change altitude to 10 to 15 meters above the surface when striking a target, making them difficult to detect and destroy.
“We need means, we need to reinforce the southern regions, our port cities, with means, in particular, against ballistic missiles,” he said. “Systems such as Patriot or SAMP-T could provide protection for this region.”
Ukraine has received at least two Patriot systems in April, one from the United States and one from Germany. While the Ukrainian military hasn’t disclosed their locations, it has previously confirmed it used them to shoot down missiles targeting Kyiv.
Unlike Ukraine’s Soviet-era air defenses, the Patriot interceptor missiles can hit high- and medium-altitude aircraft, cruise missiles and some ballistic missiles, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The system has a powerful radar that can detect incoming targets at long range, also making it possible to take down these types of weapons.
But unlike some shorter-range air defenses provided to Ukraine that are mobile, the large Patriot battery is a stationary system, which means it is impossible for the Ukrainian military to quickly redeploy it to different areas.
Grain infrastructure targeted
Moscow launched an intense campaign of bombardment against Odesa, Mykolaiv and other settlements in southern Ukraine on Monday after Ukraine struck the key Crimea bridge. It launched more strikes on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the strikes were in retaliation for the bridge attack, and claimed that it targeted facilities associated with Ukraine’s seaborne attack drones. But Ukraine said Russia has been striking civilian infrastructure associated with grain exports.
Moscow announced on Monday that it was suspending its participation in an agreement that allowed the export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea. The announcement sparked fears over global food security, because Ukraine supplies 10% of the world wheat market, 15% of the corn market, and 13% of the barley market.
A spokesperson for Ukraine’s military said Friday that the attacks on Odesa were a continuing effort to destroy Kyiv’s ability to export foodstuffs.
“The enemy continues terror, and the terror is undoubtedly related to the grain deal,” Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the south of the country said. She said Russia targeted a grain warehouse in the city, hitting it with a “double-tap” strike.
“The attack was directed in two stages. First, there were two missiles. Then, when the rescue operation began, when the rescuers were working at the facility, they hit us again with a missile, using the same tactics. Luckily, the rescuers managed to get to the shelter, but a lot of agricultural and rescue equipment was damaged,” she said.
Russia’s withdrawal from the deal, coupled with the strikes, prompted fierce criticism from Ukraine and its allies. Zelensky said Wednesday the attacks on the grain infrastructure showed Russia’s “target is not only Ukraine, and not only the lives of our people.”
“About a million tons of food is stored in the ports that were attacked today. This is the volume that should have been delivered to consumer countries in Africa and Asia long ago,” he said. “Everyone is affected by this Russian terror,” he added.
Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said Putin’s decision to withdraw from the grain deal would hit the poorest hard. “The idea that Putin would play roulette with the hungriest people in the world at the time of the greatest food crisis in our lifetimes is just deeply disturbing,” Power told CNN in an interview on Tuesday.
The European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said on Thursday that Russia’s “barbarian” attacks were causing large scale destruction of grain storage. “Not only they withdraw from the grain agreement in order to export grain from Ukraine, but they are burning the grain. What we already know is that this is going to create a big, a huge food crisis in the world,” Borrell said.
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Mia Alberti, Yulia Kesaieva, Wayne Change, Alex Hardie and Katharina Krebs contributed reporting.