Russia unleashes biggest air attack on Ukraine since start of full-scale invasion

By Victoria Butenko, Maria Kostenko, Mariya Knight, Svitlana Vlasova and Christian Edwards, CNN

Kyiv, Ukraine CNN  —  Russia has launched the biggest air attack on Ukraine since the beginning of its full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian military told CNN, with an unprecedented number of drones and missiles fired at targets across the country, killing at least 31 people and injuring more than 150 others.

The wave of attacks began overnight into Friday and struck nationwide, with blasts reported in the capital Kyiv, as well as at a maternity hospital in the central city of Dnipro, the eastern city of Kharkiv, the southeastern port of Odesa, and the western city of Lviv, far from the frontlines.

The strikes continued Friday afternoon, Ukraine’s air force said, as a barrage of missiles targeted the northern Cherkasy region, with one hitting the city of Smilla. Other missiles were detected from Russia’s Kursk region heading towards the northeastern Ukrainian city of Sumy.

“It’s been a long time since we have seen so many enemy targets on our monitors in all regions and all directions,” Yurii Ihnat, spokesperson for Ukraine’s air force, told national television. “Everything was being fired.”

The attack drew condemnation from several western nations and from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“I condemn in the strongest terms the overnight large-scale missile & drone attack by Russia on Ukrainian cities & towns across the country,” he wrote on X. “Attacks against civilians & civilian infrastructure violate international humanitarian law, are unacceptable & must end immediately.”

Russia used 158 drones and missiles, including hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, cruise missiles and Shahed drones, to strike targets in Kyiv, the east, south and west of the country, Ukraine’s air force said.

“Today the enemy has struck a powerful blow. There are downed targets, however unfortunately there are also casualties,” Ihnat added.

The Polish military reported an “unidentified airborne object” entered Polish airspace from Ukrainian territory early Friday morning.

Chief of the General Staff, General Wiesław Kukuła, said everything indicated that a Russian missile had entered and then left Polish airspace, official Polish news agency PAP reported.

Polish deputy foreign minister Władysław Teofil Bartoszewski has summoned the chargé d’affaires of the Russian Federation, Andrei Ordash, on Friday and handed him a note requesting an explanation, the Polish foreign ministry said in a statement.

But Russia said that it “will not give explanations” until concrete evidence is presented,” Russia’s state media RIA Novosti reported.

Ordash told RIA Novosti that the note “contained only unfounded accusations,” adding that “the Polish side refused to provide evidence that the missile was of Russian origin,” RIA reported.

‘Congress must step up’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia used “nearly every type of weapon in its arsenal” in the “terrorist strikes,” to which he pledged Ukraine’s military would respond.

The massive overnight assault comes just days after Ukraine struck a Russian Navy landing ship in Crimea on Tuesday, causing severe damage to the vessel in another major blow to Moscow’s Black Sea fleet.

But the onslaught also came shortly after Ukraine received the last package of military aid from the United States until Congress approves the Biden administration’s funding request.

On Friday, Biden called again on Congress to pass additional assistance to Ukraine, saying US-provided defense systems had intercepted many of the Russian drones and missiles launched Friday.

“The American people can be proud of the lives we have helped to save and the support we have given Ukraine as it defends its people, its freedom, and its independence,” he wrote. “But unless Congress takes urgent action in the new year, we will not be able to continue sending the weapons and vital air defense systems Ukraine needs to protect its people. Congress must step up and act without any further delay.”

Biden has requested nearly $60 billion in new assistance for Ukraine, but the funding has stalled amid negotiations over toughening US immigration rules.

Nearly two years since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Zelensky is facing a largely-stalled counteroffensive while Western aid has begun to dry up.

In a separate development, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to troops fighting in one of the most fiercely contested parts of front, the ruined city of Avdiivka.

Video released by the Ukrainian Presidency showed Zelensky standing on a muddy track with the town’s name behind him. As he speaks, two detonations in the distance are heard. He is also shown presenting medals to troops in an underground bunker.

“Ukraine is defending its own here,” he said. “Defending our entire nation. Just as on the entire front line.”

Municipality workers clean the road near a maternity hospital that was destroyed by a Russian missile strike during its invasion of Ukraine, in Dnipro, December 29, 2023. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A series of strikes

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Alekseevich Nebenzya, claimed that Moscow was aiming for military targets and that its operation was not against civilians, even though Ukraine said many of the buildings struck were civilian, including at least two hospitals.

He boasted that Ukraine does not have the resources to “achieve a breakthrough” and claimed that its military plans are a “total fiasco.”

“So very soon, you and your Ukrainian proxies can expect the very worst news,” he warned.

In Kyiv at least seven people were killed and dozens injured after Russia targeted a metro station and residential buildings.

Kharkiv was hit by a “massive attack,” Ukrainian Prime Minster Denys Shmyhal said, with more than 20 strikes reported in the region, including on a hospital. At least three people were killed and 11 injured in the strikes, according to regional military administration head Oleh Syniehubov.

At least four people were killed and 10 people were injured in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia, the regional military administration head Yurif Malashko said on Telegram. Emergency workers are still working to see if people are trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Malashko said the region had been targeted by 10 missiles, including Kinzhal missiles, of which one was intercepted.

Further south, a school building was hit in Odesa, injuring seven people, including a child. At least three people were killed and 22 injured – including two children and a pregnant woman – in strikes elsewhere in the region, according to Oleh Kiper, head of Odesa region military administration. At least 18 people were hospitalized.

And in the central city of Dnipro, six people have been confirmed killed, and thirty people were injured in the missile strikes. Elsewhere in the city, 12 pregnant women and four newborn babies had a lucky escape, with video showing extensive damage to a maternity hospital after a Russian missile strike.

Among those who were killed on Friday was Viktor Kobzystyi, a celebrated basketball player in the country, who had played twice in the European Championships before becoming a leading coach, according to Ukrainian officials.

A 53-year-old primary school teacher, described by her colleague as “a very energetic person, a great hard worker, and a loving mother”, was also killed in Zaporizhzhia on Friday, local authorities said, with the education minister calling it “a tragedy for the entire educational family.”

Iryna Kulbach, the head of the obstetrics department at the hospital, said “Windows were smashed in the building and the ceilings were broken. But all the patients and medical staff are safe.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Russia had targeted “Ukrainian women, children, the elderly, and civilians.”

“The crimes that Russia has committed in Ukraine today are its revenge for its inability to turn the tide of the battle in the fight against the Ukrainian defense forces,” it said in a statement.

Without referring directly to Friday’s attacks, the Russian Defense Ministry said its army had “carried out 50 group strikes and one mass strike with high-precision weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles” in the period from December 23 to 29, claiming it had only struck military targets.

Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Kyiv warned Americans Friday that it “anticipates there may be an increase in Russian drone and missile attacks during the New Year holiday weekend.”

The head of Ukraine’s Presidential Office, Andriy Yermak, called for support as his country battles Russian airstrikes.

“A massive terrorist attack, rockets are flying at our cities again, and civilians are being targeted,” Yermak said in a Telegram post on Friday.

“Ukraine needs support. We will be even stronger, we are doing everything to strengthen our air shield. But the world needs to see that we need more support and strength to stop this terror.”

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Emergency Service, firefighters work on a site of a building damaged after a Russian attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Dec. 29, 2023. (Ukrainian Emergency Service via AP)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the European Union will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”

“We have stood by Ukraine since day one of Russia’s war of aggression. With almost €85 billion [$94 billion] in financial, humanitarian and military support,” she wrote on X.

The latest proposed package of EU aid to Ukraine was blocked by Hungary earlier this month, but a majority of members are exploring the use of different mechanisms to continue providing financial assistance to Ukraine. Von der Leyen said Brussels was “working very hard” to reach an agreement between 27 member states.

Following the attacks the United Kingdom’s defense minister Grant Shapps said the UK is sending “hundreds of air defense missiles” to Ukraine, to “restock British gifted air defense systems capable of striking down Russian drones and missiles with incredible accuracy.”

‘The house was shaking’

The Ukrainian Air Force said it recorded “the departure of 9 Tu-95MS strategic bombers from the ‘Olenya’ airfield in the Murmansk region of Russia.” The Tu-95 bomber is a mainstay of Russia’s aerial attacks on Ukraine, able to launch cruise missiles against its neighbor out of the range of most air-defense systems.

In Kyiv, air raid sirens sounded for several hours overnight. Residents told CNN later Friday how they were woken by the attacks.

“It was very loud, the house was shaking, it was very scary,” said Viktoria Krasyuk. “It seems like you’ve been living in this for many months, but it still causes emotions, it’s still very difficult, it’s very hard to decide whether to stay or go somewhere, or even leave (the country).”

A man named Sehiy told CNN the attack was a reminder that Russia’s “goal is the same – to destroy Ukraine as a state.”

“Unfortunately, Russia is learning to fight. It is learning to fight, including from us Ukrainians. They are accumulating ammunition, everything else they need,” he said.

Smoke rises behind a building damaged in Russia's missile attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Dec. 29, 2023. Russia launched about 110 missiles as well as drones against Ukrainian targets during the night Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday, in what appeared to be one of the biggest aerial barrages of the 22-month war.(AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
A firefighter works at the site of a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine December 29, 2023. REUTERS/Yevhen Titov

Trains were halted as a building was damaged at Lukianivska subway station in central Kyiv, which is also operating as a shelter, mayor Klitschko said.

Many were wounded and a search for victims is underway after a warehouse caught fire in the Podilskyi district of the capital region, the head of Kyiv’s military administration, Serhiy Popko, said in a Telegram post.

In Lviv, which borders Poland, the head of the regional military administration said that at least 15 people had been injured, with damage reported in 13 residential buildings and two schools. The National Basketball Federation later announced that one of the country’s most celebrated basketball players, Viktor Kobzystyi, had died in the strikes on the city.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he wished the “loud sound of explosions” heard across Ukraine Friday morning “could be heard all around the world.”

“In all major capitals, headquarters, and parliaments, which are currently debating further support for Ukraine. In all newsrooms, which are writing about ‘fatigue’ or Russia purportedly being ready for ‘negotiations,’” he wrote on X.

“These sounds are what Russia really has to say. Our only collective response can and must be continued, robust, and long-term military and financial assistance to Ukraine. Only greater firepower can silence Russian terror.”

CNN’s Tim Lister, Radina Gigova, Catherine Nicholls and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting.

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