Russian airstrikes wrecked the historic Transfiguration Cathedral in the Ukrainian city of Odesa early Sunday, prompting Kyiv to pledge retaliation for the damage to the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Father Myroslav, the assistant rector, said that there was extensive damage inside. “There was a direct hit to the cathedral; it completely damaged three altars,” he said. Members of the clergy pulled icons from the rubble inside the cathedral. Mosaics were smashed. A security guard and clergymen were inside when the strike hit but they survived.
The destruction of the historic monument has caused outrage. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed to retaliate. “They will definitely feel this,” he said.
UNESCO issued a statement “strongly” condemning the attack. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the strike as a “new war crime.”
The first and foremost church in the city of Odesa was founded in 1794 during the Russian empire. It was demolished under Stalin in 1936. Its rebuilding commenced in 1999 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and it was consecrated in 2003.
Separately, “A preliminary assessment in Odesa has revealed damage to several museums inside the World Heritage property, including the Odesa Archaeological Museum, the Odesa Maritime Museum and the Odesa Literature Museum. They had all been marked by UNESCO and local authorities with the Blue Shield, the distinctive emblem of the 1954 Hague Convention,” the UNESCO statement said.
Russia’s defense ministry claimed it struck areas that were suspected of being sites of terrorist acts but denied it had struck the cathedral and said the building had probably been hit by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile. The airstrikes killed two people and wounded at least 19 others, including children. Residents said the missiles hit only residential areas and small businesses.
Russia has launched a series of attacks on Odesa since Moscow’s exit from a U.N.-brokered Black Sea Grain deal that was securing the safe passage of cargo ships through the Black Sea corridor.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN Sunday that while Ukraine’s counteroffensive is going more slowly than originally hoped for, Ukrainian forces had reconquered half the territory that Russia had initially occupied when it invaded.
“It’s already taken back about 50% of what was initially seized,” Blinken said.
“These are still relatively early days of the counteroffensive. It is tough,” he said, adding, “It will not play out over the next week or two. We’re still looking I think at several months,” he said as Ukrainian troops struggle to breach heavily entrenched Russian positions in the country’s south and east.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that Ukraine’s counteroffensive “has failed.” While visiting St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin’s ally, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, said Sunday, “There is no counteroffensive.” Putin replied: “It exists, but it has failed.”
The British defense ministry said Sunday in its daily intelligence report on Ukraine that Russia has likely achieved some marginal gains in northern Ukraine in Luhansk and Kharkiv oblasts, “but the situation has been obfuscated by Russian disinformation.”
The activity, the British ministry said, highlights the north’s importance to Russia, while Russia is also “facing significant pressure in the southern Zaporizhzhia sector.”
Russian forces are “likely” going back to the Oskil River to form a buffer zone around Luhansk oblast because its possession, the ministry said, is “almost certainly” one of Russia’s fundamental war objectives.
Black Sea cargo ships
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke Saturday with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg about ways to restore the safe transit of ships carrying Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.
In his nightly video address, Zelenskyy said he asked Stoltenberg to convene the NATO-Ukraine Council, which was set up at the recent NATO summit in Lithuania, to discuss security in the Black Sea, particularly the operation of a corridor for Ukrainian grain exports.
NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said the council would discuss the situation following Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
The U.N.-brokered accord, which expired last Monday, guaranteed safe passage to ships transporting grain and other agricultural commodities from Ukrainian ports through the Black Sea corridor.
Since the expiration of the deal, Moscow has declared large areas of the Black Sea dangerous for shipping and targeted Ukrainian ports with drones and missiles, destroying 60,000 metric tons of grain.
Moscow has warned that it would assume that ships crossing parts of the Black Sea would be carrying weapons to Ukraine. Similarly, Ukraine said vessels heading to Russian Black Sea ports would be considered “carrying military cargo with all the associated risks.”