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UKRAINE UPDATE: 25 MARCH 2024

Russia’s day of mourning after deadly terror attack; Kremlin launches missile and drone barrage

Russia’s day of mourning after deadly terror attack; Kremlin launches missile and drone barrage
People mourn at the Crocus City Hall concert venue following the 22 March terror attack in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, Russia, 24 March 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / MAXIM SHIPENKOV)

Russia was holding a national day of mourning on Sunday following the terror attack that killed at least 137 people in Moscow, as officials continue to suggest a Ukrainian role in the massacre claimed by the Islamic State.

Russia struck an underground gas storage facility in western Ukraine during a missile and drone attack on Sunday, underlining threats to the country’s energy system posed by war.

The air barrage included a missile that briefly crossed into Polish airspace, while Kyiv’s forces struck two Russian ships off the annexed Crimean peninsula. 

Russia mourns victims after deadly Moscow terror attack

Russia held a national day of mourning on Sunday after the terror attack that killed at least 137 people in Moscow, as officials continue to suggest a Ukrainian role in the massacre claimed by the Islamic State.

The investigation of the crime scene continued, the state investigation committee said on Telegram. So far, 62 bodies have been identified. 

Russians lined up to donate blood, and many added flowers and candles to a makeshift shrine outside the Crocus City Hall on the edge of Moscow. President Vladimir Putin lit a candle for the victims in a church at his state residence west of the capital, according to the Kremlin.  

Amid heightened security at major airports and railway stations, people gathered in memory of the victims across the country. TV channels cancelled entertainment programming in a mark of respect.    

Putin said in a televised address on Saturday that security services had captured four suspects who he said were trying to flee to Ukraine. While he didn’t directly accuse Ukrainian authorities of involvement in the attack, Putin said a “window” had been prepared for the men to cross the border, without offering evidence. 

Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky in a Saturday video address and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, have denied any role and called the attack a false-flag operation by the Kremlin. 

“Their only goal is to motivate more Russians to die in their senseless and criminal war against Ukraine,” Kuleba said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. 

The Islamic State claimed responsibility in a Telegram message and later posted a photograph of four men it said had carried out the assault. Overnight it published a video of the four assailants shooting at people in the concert hall and one of them killing a person with a knife.   

The US said the Islamic State was solely responsible for Friday’s attack, dismissing suggestions of Ukrainian involvement. “Isis is a common terrorist enemy that must be defeated everywhere,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. 

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson reiterated on Saturday that the US shared information with Russia in early March about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow. She pointed again to an unusual public warning posted by the US Embassy in Moscow on 7 March which cited “reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow”, including concerts. 

Putin dismissed those warnings when he met on Tuesday with senior Federal Security Service (FSB) officers. “All this resembles outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilise our society,” the president said.     

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova hit back at the US on Sunday. “Until the investigation into the terrorist attack in Crocus is completed, any phrase from Washington justifying Kyiv should be considered as evidence,” she said on her Telegram channel. 

Amid concerns Putin could use the attack as justification to order a new mass mobilisation for his invasion of Ukraine, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt accused the Russian leader of creating a “smokescreen of propaganda”. 

“We have very little confidence in anything the Russian government says,” Hunt said in an interview on Sky News.    

Putin on Saturday said authorities had detained all those directly involved in the “barbaric” assault by gunmen, who turned automatic weapons against people attending a rock concert. He vowed to hunt down anyone responsible for ordering and organising the incursion. 

The president spoke after the FSB announced its agents had detained the suspects in Russia’s Bryansk region, which borders both Ukraine and Russian ally Belarus. The men planned to cross into Ukraine where they “had contacts,” the Interfax news service reported, citing a statement by the FSB that gave no further detail.   

FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov reported to Putin that a total of 11 people had been detained, including the four suspects.   

Fire ripped through the massive venue during Friday’s assault after explosions were heard, leading to a partial collapse of the roof. In addition to the deaths some 180 people were injured, Ria Novosti reported on Sunday, citing regional health authorities.    

Islamist groups have targeted Russia in the past citing what they call anti-Muslim policies by the Kremlin. The seizure of a school in Beslan in the south of the country led to more than 330 fatalities, many of them children, in 2004. In 2010, twin suicide attacks in Moscow subway stations killed at least 40, while a suicide bombing killed 16, including the attacker, in the St Petersburg subway in 2017. 

Russian barrage aimed at underground gas storage – Ukraine

Russia struck an underground gas storage facility in western Ukraine during a missile and drone attack on Sunday, underlining threats to the country’s energy system posed by war.

The barrage damaged equipment on the ground, Oleksiy Chernyshov, chief executive officer of state-run Naftogaz Ukrainy, said on Facebook. The underground storage itself wasn’t damaged as it’s significantly below the earth’s surface, he said. 

Kremlin forces aimed missiles and drones at Ukraine’s electric power and gas facilities, the Russian defence ministry said in an operational update posted on Telegram. It was the second such targeted attack against Ukraine’s energy systems in three days after a massive barrage on Friday. 

The strikes didn’t disrupt gas supplies to domestic clients, and Ukraine continued to meet all obligations and fulfil storage capacity bookings by foreign clients, Chernyshov said.

Ukraine has been actively advertising itself as a storage haven for European foreign traders awash with gas

Almost 80% of Ukraine’s underground storage capacity is located in the west, hundreds of kilometres from the front line and in areas that have endured relatively limited airstrikes during Russia’s invasion, now into its third year. 

Russian missile enters Polish air space, Kyiv strikes ships

Russian forces launched an air barrage against Ukraine on Sunday, including a missile that briefly crossed into Polish airspace, while Kyiv’s forces struck two Russian ships off the annexed Crimean peninsula.  

Ukrainian air defence downed 18 out of 29 missiles and most of 28 Shahed drones fired by Kremlin forces, the country’s Air Force command said on Telegram. 

Local authorities reported 10 missiles downed over Ukraine’s capital and almost 20 missiles and seven drones aimed at the Lviv region in the country’s far west, near the Polish border, targeting energy infrastructure.  

The Russian cruise missile entered Polish airspace for 39 seconds, the country’s military said on X, formerly Twitter. Authorities in Warsaw notified Nago allies about the incident, said Jacek Siewiera, the head of the National Security Bureau. 

The Polish air force and allies scrambled jets to monitor air space during the attack, which was launched from at least 13 Russian strategic bombers, the country’s armed forces spokesman Jacek Goryszewski said in a televised press briefing.  

Poland’s foreign ministry said the government would demand an explanation from Moscow. It was the third incident involving missiles entering Polish airspace since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago.  

The overnight attack damaged energy facilities of state-run Naftogaz Ukrainy in the country’s west, CEO Oleksiy Chernyshov said on Facebook, without elaborating. No casualties were reported.  

Explosive-laden drones also damaged Danube port infrastructure in the Odesa region, Ukraine’s Southern Military Command said on Facebook without elaborating. 

Russia’s defence ministry said in an operational update that it had targeted Ukraine’s power infrastructure and gas industry. 

It was the third major Russian attack against Ukraine in four days. Thursday’s strikes centred on Kyiv, while those on Friday targeted the country’s energy facilities, the largest such barrage since the start of Russia’s invasion.

While Ukrainian forces continued to repel attacks along the 1,200km front line, they also took aim at targets inside Moscow-controlled areas. 

Kyiv’s forces struck Russian vessels and military installations in annexed Crimea again on Sunday morning. The landing ships Yamal and Azov were struck, as well as a communications centre and other military infrastructure in Sevastopol, the country’s General Staff said on Telegram.   

Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, came under fire overnight, with 10 missiles downed, two people injured and several homes damaged, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram. 

Power outages persist in Ukraine’s Kharkiv after Russian strikes

The northeastern city of Kharkiv was still facing water, heating and power shortages caused by a Russian missile barrage on Ukraine on Friday, and utility services may not be fully restored until Monday despite round-the-clock efforts of emergency teams, according to local authorities.

“The damage to the energy system of Kharkiv was severe and the situation is very, very difficult,” mayor Ihor Terekhov said on television. The power supply would not be restored until at least Monday, he said, and there was a limited availability of water and heating because those systems depended on electricity. DM

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