Russian missiles struck the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia far behind the frontlines on Thursday in an attack which Ukrainian officials called a war crime and said had killed at least 23 people, including three children.
The strike, which Ukraine said had been carried out with Kalibr cruise missiles launched from a Russian submarine in the Black Sea, came a day after a breakthrough in talks between Moscow and Kyiv to unblock Ukrainian grain exports and underscored how far the two sides remain from a peace settlement.
“What is this, if not an open act of terrorism?” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on the Telegram messaging app. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “appalled” by the missile attack and “condemns any attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure,” a spokesperson said.
EU slams ‘atrocity’
The European Union strongly condemned what it called an “atrocity” after the attacks.
“This atrocity in Vinnytsia is the latest in a long series of brutal attacks targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic said in a statement.
“There can be no impunity for violations and crimes committed by the Russian forces and their political superiors.” The Russian defence ministry, which denies deliberately targeting civilians, did not immediately comment on the strike.
Ukraine’s state emergency service said on its Facebook page that 23 people including three children had been killed, with 66 hospitalised and 39 others still missing. It posted a photograph on its Telegram channel of a toy kitten, a toy dog, and flowers lying in the grass.
“The little girl Lisa, killed by the Russians today, has become a ray of sunshine,” it said, above a second image of a setting sun over ruined roofs. “Forgive us, little one, that we did not save you.”
Mr Zelenskyy told an international conference aimed at prosecuting war crimes in Ukraine that the attack had been mounted on “an ordinary, peaceful city”.
“Cruise missiles hit two community facilities, houses were destroyed, a medical centre was destroyed, cars and trams were on fire,” he said.
Ukraine’s interior minister, Denys Monastyrskyi, said later two more missiles had been intercepted en route by air defences.
Russia, which launched what it called its “special military operation” against Ukraine on 24 February, says its it uses high-precision weapons to degrade Ukraine’s military infrastructure to protect its own security.
Vinnytsia, a city of 370,000 people about 200km southwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, hosts the command headquarters of the Ukrainian Air Force, according to an official Ukrainian military website, a target which Russia used cruise missiles to try to hit in March, the Ukrainian air force said at the time.
Video footage showed thick black smoke billowing out of a tall building, while photographs posted online by the State Emergency Service showed grey smoke rising later from the twisted remains of burnt-out cars and smouldering rubble.
One showed an abandoned, overturned pram lying on the street.
Firefighters gather as they take rubbles out of a damaged building following a Russian airstrike in the city of Vinnytsia, west-central Ukraine, on July 14, 2022. Source: Getty / SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
In comments on Twitter, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russia of committing “another war crime”.
“This is terrorism. Deliberate murder of civilians to spread fear. Russia is a terrorist state and must be legally recognised as such,” Mr Kuleba wrote.
Forty-five nations pledge to coordinate evidence of war crimes
The United States and more than 40 other countries agreed on Thursday to coordinate investigations into suspected war crimes in Ukraine shortly after the strike.
At the conference in The Hague headquarters of the International Criminal Court (ICC), they signed a political declaration to work together on investigations into war crimes in Ukraine.
Those countries included European Union states, Britain, the United States, Canada, Mexico and Australia. Steps they will take include creating an umbrella group to avoid duplicating investigations, training Ukrainian prosecutors and expanding the number of forensic teams operating in Ukraine.
They also pledged 20 million euros to assist the ICC, as well as the prosecutor general’s office in Ukraine and United Nations support efforts.
With some 23,000 war crimes investigations now open and different countries heading teams, evidence needs to be credible and organised, officials, said.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said governments were galvanised by images of “innocent civilians being butchered with their hands tied behind their back, women and men being raped and sometimes family members being forced to look at that.”
Separately, Mr Hoekstra said the Netherlands would consider setting up an international Ukraine war crimes tribunal, in part because neither Ukraine nor Russia are members of the ICC.
“We have to fill a vacuum, and the ICC here doesn’t have the jurisdictions so I can imagine we do look into coming up with such a tribunal. ..We will take a look into this,” he said.
Fighting on the eastern front
Russia denies the accusations, and Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who is now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has said that attempts by the West to punish a nuclear power such as Russia for the conflict in Ukraine risk endangering humanity.
The Kremlin has said that Russia is ready to halt what the West calls Moscow’s unprovoked war of aggression if Kyiv agrees to its conditions.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko said on Thursday that Moscow would respond positively should Kyiv be ready to resume peace negotiations, the Interfax news agency reported.
Kyiv would have to affirm its non-aligned and non-nuclear status and formally recognise existing territorial realities, Mr Rudenko was cited as saying.
Specifically, he said that would mean recognising that Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, was under Russian control, and that two self-proclaimed Russian-backed statelets in eastern Ukraine were no longer under Kyiv’s remit.
Ukraine has repeatedly said it is unwilling to concede any territory to a country it calls a hostile occupier and has said it plans to take back any land lost by force.
Russian-backed separatist forces late on Thursday claimed control of the settlements of Stryapivka and Nova Kamianka east of Soledar, the LPR militia said on their Telegram channel.
Two people were killed when Ukrainian forces shelled a bus station in the separatist-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, a separatist leader said on Thursday.
Since invading in February, Russian forces have bombed Ukrainian cities to ruins and left behind bodies in the streets of towns and villages they occupied. Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have died. Moscow denies responsibility.
There have also been some reports of Ukrainians mistreating Russian prisoners, though the vast majority of accusations documented by bodies such as the United Nations are of alleged atrocities committed by Russian invaders and their proxies.
“As this meeting takes place, Russian forces continue to commit atrocities in Ukraine with harrowing intensity,” said US envoy Uzra Zeya, who attended the Hague meeting.
“With each day the war crimes mount: rape, torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, forced deportations, attacks on schools, hospitals, playgrounds, apartment buildings, grain silos, water and gas facilities.”
The European Union’s justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, noted that war crimes and genocide suspects were still at large from conflicts dating back decades in places such as Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, Congo and the Balkans.