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Russian missiles are blasting civilians in Ukraine

Workers clean up wreckage at the Amstor Mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, after the building was hit by a Russian cruise missile.
Jason Beaubien
/
NPR
Workers clean up wreckage at the Amstor Mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, after the building was hit by a Russian cruise missile.

KREMENCHUK, Ukraine — It was a hot summer afternoon in this city in central Ukraine, the kind of day Ukrainians dream of in the depths of winter. Young women pulled out flowery sundresses. Teenagers in cut-off jeans made plans to gather at the mall. Families rode bikes along the sidewalk.

Ihor Mykhaylov and his wife were waiting for a bus in front of the Amstor shopping mall. "We decided to go into the mall to buy some water," Mykhaylov says.

Minutes later, a nearly 40-foot-long, Soviet-era missile crashed into the complex. Mykhaylov's wife and 20 other people were killed. That was June 27, and the Amstor Mall joined more than two dozen other shopping centers that Russian forces have destroyed in more than four months of their full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"When I woke up, I realized I'd lost my arm," Mykhaylov says about regaining consciousness on the floor of the mall. Propped up in a hospital bed, his right arm is amputated just below the elbow. His other arm is wrapped in gauze, from fingertips to shoulder. Cuts and bruises mark his face and chest. He remembers fire was spreading through the mall.

"I realized I had to crawl out of there," he says.

The 53-year-old used to work in construction. A week after the attack, he still couldn't walk. Mykhaylov was one of nearly 60 people seriously injured by the Russian missile strike on the Amstor Mall.

The hit on the mall was followed moments later by an explosion roughly 500 yards away. At 3:52 p.m., a second Russian missile smashed into the grounds of a factory behind the shopping complex.

Workers at the Kredmash factory walk past the portion of the plant that was hit by a missile that landed moments after a missile hit a nearby shopping mall.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
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NPR
Workers at the Kredmash factory walk past the portion of the plant that was hit by a missile that landed moments after a missile hit a nearby shopping mall.

Viktor Shybko, the deputy head of Kredmash, a road-paving equipment company, points to a muddy crater on the edge of the industrial compound where the missile struck.

It hit the Kredmash compound 20 minutes after most workers had left for the day. The explosion injured two security guards, damaged one assembly line and blew out a lot of windows.

Russia makes incredible claims about attacks

Russian officials have made conflicting and at times ridiculously false claims about the airstrikes that hit Kredmash and the Amstor Mall. Those assertions include that the shopping mall was empty and that the casualties were staged. Another claim is that Russia only targeted the factory, where it alleged the Ukrainian army was hiding weapons, and that when the factory exploded, fire spread to the mall.

Shybko laughs when asked about this, saying he heard this rumor too — from Russian media.

Workers at the Kredmash factory put plastic over windows blown out by the explosion of a Russian cruise missile.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
/
NPR
Workers at the Kredmash factory put plastic over windows blown out by the explosion of a Russian cruise missile.

"You can see that all of our storage is open," he says as he walks across through the aging industrial compound. "So there's no place to keep any type of military machines here."

Yet Kredmash is a massive industrial complex, covering nearly 60 acres. Before the Russian invasion in February, it employed 1,800 workers.

The factory may have been the target

The compound is a collection of warehouses and metal working factories with direct access to rail lines and truck loading docks. It certainly has the potential to hide weapons. The two Russian missile strikes, including the deadly one on the mall, hit nearly a quarter-mile apart on either side of the complex.

Workers clean up wreckage at the Amstor Mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, after the building was hit by a Russian cruise missile.
Jason Beaubien / NPR
/
NPR
Workers clean up wreckage at the Amstor Mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, after the building was hit by a Russian cruise missile.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former head of the U.S. Army in Europe, says the plant appears to have been the intended target. Russia is desperately trying to hit Western military supplies that are moving across Ukraine to the front lines in the east.

Russian forces "have not been able to in any way effectively disrupt the logistical network inside Ukraine" of ammunition and equipment, says Hodges, who's now with the Center for European Policy Analysis.

He says Russia can't strike moving trains or trucks inside Ukraine, so it's going after suspected weapons warehouses and transfer points. But even hitting those is difficult because Moscow has used up most of its precision missiles. The Russians are now using missiles built 40 years ago that lack sophisticated targeting systems. And making those weapons even less accurate, they're firing them from hundreds of miles away.

"The Russian air force does not even come into Ukrainian airspace because there they have failed to achieve air superiority," Hodges says. "They're terrified of the Ukrainian air force and air defenses. So they stay in the airspace over Belarus or Russia to launch these missiles into their targets."

If they end up killing innocent bystanders, Hodges says, this is not a problem for commanders in the Russian military. He says not only is no one going to get in trouble for it, the collateral damage actually plays into the scorched earth policy the Russian military used in Mariupol and many other parts of Ukraine.

The Russians try to terrify the local population, Hodges says, to undercut Ukrainian support for the war.

"How do you achieve maximum terror? You hit a shopping mall at peak hours," he says.

This is a pattern for Russia

Despite regularly proclaiming that it does not attack civilian targets, Russia has obliterated apartment buildings across the country, bombed theaters and destroyed museums, in addition to blowing up shopping malls in Ukraine.

United Nations human rights experts have counted almost 5,000 civilians killed and more than 6,000 injured since the start of the war in February.

Just days after the airstrike on the mall in Kremenchuk, Russian missiles killed 21 people at an apartment building and a recreation center in a coastal resort near Odesa. A few days later, in the town of Chasiv Yar, in the eastern Donetsk region, Russian artillery brought down a residential building, killing at least 30 civilians.

Even if these recent strikes on civilians were accidents, Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of the Center for Civil Liberties Ukraine, says they are war crimes. It doesn't matter, she says even if President Vladimir Putin and Russian military commanders claim they were aiming for military targets.

"You have always to evaluate the possible damage for civilians even when you try to hit a military object," she says. Russia routinely isn't doing that evaluation, she adds.

And she says this is not new for the Russian military.

"They've enjoyed impunity for decades," she says. "They committed the same [attacks on civilians] in Georgia and Moldova, in Syria, in Mali, in Libya. They really think that they can do whatever they want and they can say whatever they want."

Hodges, the former Army commander, says he expects Russian strikes on civilians to continue. These attacks may even increase, he says, as military leaders in Moscow face dogged Ukrainian resistance on the front lines and the Kremlin grows more frustrated with what it had expected to be a quick war.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.