Late Sunday, a day after the Crimea blast, explosions rocked Pavlograd in central Ukraine, and air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg

April 30, 2023

The New York Times

An attack on an oil depot in Russian-occupied Crimea that sparked a huge fire and sent a plume of black smoke billowing into the sky was part of Ukraine’s preparations for a counteroffensive, a Ukrainian military spokeswoman said on Sunday. The fire early Saturday in the city of Sevastopol, the home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, is the latest example of what looks to be the next phase of a conflict that has for months been marked by bitter fighting, crawling advances and deadly shelling along the front line and across the border between the two countries. The depot fire, according to the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern command, Natalia Humeniuk, is part of preparations for “the broad, full-scale offensive that everyone expects.” She told Ukrainian television on Sunday that it was crucial to target Russia’s logistical capacity ahead of the counteroffensive. Russian officials blamed the explosion on a drone attack that managed to reach far beyond the front lines of the fighting.

A little more than 24 hours later, Russian forces demonstrated their own ability to hit targets well inside opposing territory. Pavlograd, a city far from the front lines in central Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region, was rattled by explosions, according to reports from social media and the city’s mayor, Anatoly Vershina.

Videos and photos shared on social media and reviewed by The Times appeared to show the aftermath of a large explosion inside the city. Several images also showed what appeared to be secondary explosions. Local Telegram channels shared photos of shattered windows and damage to homes following reports of an explosion. It was unclear if there were casualties. Hours later, air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine and officials warned residents to take cover from possible Russian missile strikes.

Russia has been able to launch deadly strikes far from the front lines, including an aerial assault on Friday that killed more than two dozen people. But it has been unable to break through the Ukrainian defenses in the east, making only small gains as both sides have sustained heavy casualties.

That has given Ukraine hope for a coming counteroffensive, with a belt of land just north of Crimea viewed as a likely target. Russia has held that territory, in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions along the coast of the Sea of Azov, since shortly after the invasion.

The tempo of strikes in Crimea and in cities such as Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia region has increased in recent weeks, a potential sign of their importance to a coming counteroffensive that is set to be powered by fresh supplies of advanced Western military equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers that have already arrived in the country.

While President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine says that reclaiming Crimea is a national priority, Ukrainian officials and military experts say that it is highly unlikely that the peninsula would be the immediate target of the coming campaign. Crimea is well behind Russian lines, and Russia has been attempting to strengthen its defenses along the coast, laying land mines and building obstacles to slow tanks.

Ukraine and Russia have both taken heavy casualties in hard-fought ground campaigns in the Donbas region, particularly around the city of Bakhmut, and the country’s south and east are believed to be the most likely theaters for Ukraine’s coming offensive. But shelling has remained a fixture in the daily lives of civilians from both countries in regions far from the most intense fighting.

On Sunday, four civilians were killed when Ukrainian shelling hit a Russian village close to Ukraine’s northeastern border, according to the governor of the Bryansk region, Alexander Bogomaz. Two people were also injured when several rockets struck the village of Suzemka, about six miles from the border with Ukraine’s Sumy region.

Sumy has itself been a frequent target of Russian shelling in recent months, and the regional military administration said on Sunday that Russian forces had fired a total of 57 shells on nine communities overnight, although no injuries were reported.

Ukrainian officials did report two civilian deaths from Russian shelling on Sunday, both in the country’s south. Shelling killed a woman and injured a man in the Kherson region, where Russia has been targeting territory that Ukrainian forces recaptured last fall, and one person was killed and two wounded in Nikopol, in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Neither country’s claims of civilian casualties could be independently verified.

President Biden, speaking at the annual White House Association Correspondents’ dinner on Saturday, said the United States is “working every day” to secure the release of Evan Gershkovich, an American Wall Street Journal reporter imprisoned in Russia.

Mr. Gershkovich was detained in Russia last month and accused of espionage, a charge that his employer and the United States emphatically reject. The State Department this month designated the journalist as “wrongfully detained,” signifying that the U.S. government sees him as the equivalent of a political hostage.

On Saturday, Mr. Biden spoke of Mr. Gershkovich’s “absolute courage” and said everyone at the event stood with the reporter. “Our message is this: Journalism is not a crime,” he said.

Mr. Gershkovich’s case represents the most significant attack on international journalists in Russia since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion. It is also the first time that a Western journalist in Russia has been charged with espionage since the end of the Cold War.

In his speech, Mr. Biden also spoke of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who disappeared in Syria in August 2012, soon after the country’s civil war began. It is believed that, since then, he has been held captive by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. “Evan and Austin should be released immediately along with every other American held hostage wrongfully detained abroad,” Mr. Biden said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced a high-level leadership shake-up on Sunday, replacing its head of logistics after just seven months in the job.

Col. Gen. Mikhail Y. Mizintsev — nicknamed the “butcher of Mariupol” by Western officials — assumed the role in late September after an embarrassing rout of Russian forces in northeast Ukraine. But Russia has struggled to advance on the battlefield since he took up the logistics post, making only marginal territorial gains in Ukraine’s east.

General Mizintsev, 60, was put on international sanctions lists and accused of atrocities for his role in the brutal siege of the southern port city of Mariupol. Russia’s Defense Ministry did not directly announce his removal or say what he would do next. Instead, it simply said that Col. Gen. Aleksey Kuzmenkov had been appointed to lead “combat service support of the Russian Armed Forces.”

General Kuzmenkov had served since 2019 as the head of Russia’s National Guard troops, the ministry said in a statement posted on Telegram.

Despite intense fighting, Russian forces have so far failed to capture a supply route that is key to Ukraine’s defense of the beleaguered city of Bakhmut, the spokesman for the eastern group of Ukraine’s army said on Saturday.

Keeping the route open between Bakhmut and the town of Chasiv Yar, a few miles to the west, has been crucial for Ukraine’s campaign to hold onto the city in the face of a Russian onslaught that began last summer. The area of Bakhmut has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting on the eastern front. “For several weeks now, Russians have been talking about seizing the ‘road of life’, as well as about constant fire control over it,” said the spokesman, Serhiy Cherevatyi. While he called the situation there “difficult,” he told a Ukrainian news website that Russian forces have been unable to cut off the route to Chasiv Yar, one of two important roads leading west out of Bakhmut.

Once home to around 70,000 people, Bakhmut is now mostly ruined. Though its strategic value is debatable, the city carries symbolic importance for both sides, which have sought to exhaust and bog down each other’s forces.


Cassandra Vinograd Malachy Browne and Marc Santora contributed reporting.

Matthew Mpoke Bigg is a correspondent covering international news. He previously worked as a reporter, editor and bureau chief for Reuters and did postings in Nairobi, Abidjan, Atlanta, Jakarta and Accra.