Ukraine said it shot down nine drones over the south of the country on Wednesday as the West moved to shore up the country’s air defenses in the wake of a barrage of Russian missiles and drones that knocked out energy infrastructure earlier this week.
The barrage heightened concerns as Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Wednesday ahead of the latest meeting of more than 50 Western countries under the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Brussels.
In opening remarks, Mr. Austin said Russia’s recent attacks had strengthened the resolve of Kyiv and its partners. “We will continue to boost Ukraine’s defensive capabilities—for today’s urgent needs and for the long haul,” he said.
Mr. Reznikov wrote on Twitter that strengthening Ukraine’s air defense was at the top of the agenda.
A patchwork of Soviet-era air-defense batteries, bolstered by systems rushed to Ukraine by the U.S. and others in the early days of the invasion, have prevented Russia from dominating the skies over Ukraine and hampered its campaign.
But Ukrainian cities remain vulnerable to drone attacks and cruise missiles can overwhelm limited air defenses. Moscow is also ratcheting up use of Iranian-made drones, including the Shahed-136 variant, as Russian ground forces face setbacks on the battlefield.
The drones are slow and fly at low altitudes, making them relatively easy to target using conventional air defenses, but Russia has achieved “some success” by attacking with several at the same time, the U.K.’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday. The Shahed-136 drone has a reported range of 2,500 kilometers, but it only has a small explosive payload, which means it is unlikely to be satisfactorily fulfilling the deep-strike function that Russia probably hoped for, the ministry said.
On Wednesday the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, said it had detained five citizens of Russia and three citizens of Ukraine and Armenia, on suspicion of involvement in preparing last weekend’s explosion along the Kerch Strait Bridge that links Russia to the occupied Crimean Peninsula.
In Brussels on Wednesday, European Union member states backed the creation of a new mission aimed at training thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, including in the use of more sophisticated weapons systems the country is now receiving. A final decision will be made by the bloc’s foreign ministers on Monday.
There are already several training missions up and running, including a U.K.-led one with Danish and Dutch participation which has offered training in weapons handling and trench and urban warfare to thousands of Ukrainian troops across the U.K.
The EU mission, which will also offer training centers outside of Ukraine, aims to enhance coordination of the different training missions established and will offer a platform for member states that aren’t currently training Ukrainian soldiers to participate. It is expected to begin in the next few weeks.
President Biden pledged to provide more advanced air-defense systems following Monday’s barrage, and a senior French defense official said France is also looking at providing Ukraine with air-defense capabilities. Ukraine this week received the first of four Iris-T SLM air-defense systems previously pledged by Germany.
The Pentagon has also said the U.S. is sending two mobile air-defense systems known as Nasams to Ukraine within the next two months. Another six Nasams have been earmarked for Ukraine, but Pentagon and industry officials said it could take around 18 months or longer to finish and deliver them.
“A new era of air defense has begun in Ukraine,” Mr. Reznikov said on Tuesday. “This is only the beginning. And we need more.”
Separately, Mr. Reznikov announced the arrival of four more high-precision mobile artillery systems from the U.S., bringing the total to 20. The delivery of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or Himars, helped Ukrainian forces blunt Russia’s onslaught in the east of the country earlier this year and have since enabled Kyiv to go on the offensive in the north and south.
In his nightly address, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said work was under way to restore energy infrastructure damaged in Monday’s attack, which also killed 19 people. On Tuesday, Russia fired an additional 28 missiles at Ukraine, of which 20 were intercepted, Mr. Zelensky said.
Russian forces fired at least seven S-300 missiles on the city of Zaporizhzhia and its outskirts overnight, according to the head of the regional military administration, Oleksandr Starukh.
The city has been repeatedly targeted in recent weeks, including a strike over the weekend that killed 14 people.
Two missiles landed in the city center overnight Tuesday but didn’t cause significant damage. Rescue workers pulled three people from the rubble of a building that was partially destroyed by three missiles that struck a village near Zaporizhzhia. The final two landed in a field near another village.
Rockets also struck an electricity substation in the Dnipropetrovsk region, leading to the shutdown of a power line feeding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear-power plant, according to Ukraine’s state energy company, Energoatom.
The United Nation’s atomic agency chief, Rafael Grossi, confirmed the plant had lost all of its external power for the second time in five days on Wednesday and was relying on backup diesel generators, describing the development as “deeply worrying.”
In the east of Ukraine, Russian shelling of a market in the town of Avdiivka killed seven and injured eight, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of military administration in the Donetsk region.
—Olya Fokaf and Ann M. Simmons contributed to this article.
Write to Isabel Coles at [email protected]
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