Russian missiles continued to rain down on Ukraine as G7 leaders wrapped up their summit in Madrid, where they condemned Russia’s invasion and pledged support for Kyiv.
In the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, the local mayor, Vitaliy Kim, said a Russian missile strike had killed at least three people when it hit a residential building. Moscow admitted to the strike on the city but said its forces had hit what it called a training base for “foreign mercenaries” in the region.
Video footage released by Ukrainian officials showed smoke rising from a four-storey building whose upper floor had been largely destroyed.
The local governor in Kryvyi Rih, central Ukraine, said Russia had also increased its shelling there in the past few days. “Several villages have been wiped from the face of the earth,” said the governor, Oleksandr Vilkul.
A senior military official said Russia had fired about 130 missiles at Ukraine within the past four days – including strikes on a shopping mall in Kremenchukcentral Ukraine, an attack that killed 20 civilians – as the war shows no sign of abating.
“The enemy demonstrates remarkable audacity in inflicting missile strikes on the territory of our state,” Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said on Wednesday.
Recent Russian strikes on civilian areas have drawn condemnation from western leaders, while the pope called the strike on the shopping mall in Kremenchuk the latest in a string of “barbarous attacks”.
Russia has frequently denied targeting civilian areas, but according to the UN, at least 4,700 civilians have been killed since the start of the war. Ukrainian officials believe the real total to be several times higher than that.
Addressing the UN security council remotely on Tuesday, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, urged the council to expel Russia from the UN, describing it as a “terrorist state”.
In its daily intelligence briefing, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said it anticipated Russia would continue launching strikes across the country in an effort to weaken Ukraine’s efforts to resupply its forces on the frontlines.
“Russia’s shortage of more modern precision-strike weapons and the professional shortcomings of their targeting planners will highly likely result in further civilian casualties,” the briefing added.
Moscow has stepped up its attacks as its forces make slow but steady progress in the industrial east of the country, where fighting has been raging for the hilltop city of Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian stronghold in the Luhansk oblast.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said the city was under heavy shelling on Wednesday as Russian troops were trying to encircle it.
“The Russians have a quantitative advantage in both personnel and equipment,” he said, adding that fighting was going on “everywhere” in the battle for the key city.
If Lysychansk falls, the entire region of Luhansk, which along with Donetsk makes up the eastern Donbas region, would come under Russian control, marking a major breakthrough for Vladimir Putin’s troops in their efforts to control Donbas.
In total, Russian forces occupy about 20% of Ukraine’s territory.
On Wednesday, the Moscow-imposed military-civilian administration in the Kherson region said it had begun preparations for a referendum on joining Russia, with the vote planned in “the coming half-year,” according to Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian-backed administration.
While Putin initially said the goal of what Moscow refers to as its “special military operation” was not to annex Ukrainian territories, he has recently shifted his rhetoric.
In a speech earlier this month, the Russian president said he would “respect any choice” the Russian-occupied territories made, adding that the entire former Soviet Union was “historical Russia”.
Zelenskiy has repeatedly rejected suggestions that Kyiv should give up territory and make concessions to end the war with Russia.
A poll published by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday showed that the vast majority of Ukrainians – 89% – believe it would be unacceptable to reach a peace deal with Moscow by ceding Ukrainian territory.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian military intelligence said 144 of its soldiers, including 95 soldiers captured following the surrender of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, were returned to the country in a prisoner swap with Russia. Among the 95 soldiers, Ukraine said, were 43 who were part of the Azov Regiment, a battalion that has played a central role in Russia’s justification for its invasion.
A Pro-Russian separatist leader confirmed the prisoner swap, saying that 144 Russian and separatist soldiers were returned to Russia. “We handed over to Kyiv the same number of prisoners from the Ukrainian armed forces, most of whom were wounded. Our main task is to rescue the fighters who took part in a special military operation,” said Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russian separatists the Donbas People’s Republic.
Pushlin did not comment on Ukraine’s statements that members of the Azov battalion were involved in the prisoners exchange.
At least 1,000 Ukrainian fighters were transferred to Russian-held territory in May after Russian forces took the Azovstal plant.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, arrived in Kyiv on Wednesday morning. He is meetingZelenskiy on a visit that is intended to alleviate the global food crisis.
President Widodo, better known as Jokowi, and his wife travelled to Kyiv by overnight train from the city of Przemyśl in Poland after attending the G7 summit in Germany earlier this week.
Prior to the conflict, Indonesia was one of the largest importers of Ukrainian wheat. Widodo has said he is devoted to raising the issue of rising food and energy prices with Zelenskiy, as millions of tonnes of grain remain stuck in Ukraine due to blocked ports including in occupied Mariupol.
After his meeting with Zelenskiy, Widodo will travel to Moscow, where he has vowed to urge Putin to agree to a ceasefire.