Russia’s latest attack on Odesa on Sunday killed two people and severely damaged a historic Orthodox cathedral, prompting a vow of revenge from Ukraine’s leader.
The attack came as President Vladimir Putin met his Belarusian counterpart for talks in Russia and claimed Kyiv’s counter-offensive had “failed”.
Russia has blasted the Ukrainian port city of Odesa after abandoning the Black Sea grain deal last week.
Local residents watched in disbelief as the Transfiguration Cathedral — built in 1794 under Imperial Russian rule — crumbled.
The largest Orthodox church in Odessa is located in the UNESCO-protected historical city center.
UNESCO condemned the “sexual” attack on several sites in the World Heritage area, marking an “escalation of violence against (the) cultural heritage of Ukraine,” according to UNESCO chief Audrey Assole.
The priests salvaged the icons from the ruins inside the ruined church, which was demolished under Stalin in 1936 and rebuilt in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
According to the Ministry of Culture, 29 monuments of important cultural heritage have been found damaged so far.
The Ukrainian government condemned the cathedral strike as a “war crime” and said it was “destroyed twice: by Stalin and Putin”.
President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to fight back: “They will definitely feel it,” he said.
“We cannot allow people around the world to adapt to terrorist attacks,” Zelenskiy added in an evening speech late Sunday.
“The target of all these missiles is not just cities, villages or people. Their target is humanity and the foundation of our entire European culture.”
– Pulled icons from the ruins –
Pictures showed broken mosaics on the cathedral floor as workers removed the rubble. The exterior of the building appeared intact.
“There was a direct hit on the cathedral,” said assistant rector Father Miroslav, who said three altars were destroyed.
Icons were pulled out from under the rubble and the church was “very badly damaged inside” with “only the bell tower intact”, he added.
A security guard and a priest preparing for morning worship were inside at the time of the attack, but both escaped, priests said.
Russia blamed Ukrainian air defenses for the damage to the cathedral. It said the Odessa strike hit all its intended targets, claiming the sites were being used to prepare “terrorist acts” against Russia.
But local residents said Russia had attacked residential areas.
“We have normal residential buildings here, where people live,” Tetiana, who owns a beauty salon nearby, told AFP.
“No military facilities here. Simple beauty salons, a marine agency, a groomer. Nothing military here.”
Russia launched attacks on Black Sea ports this week after Moscow, Kyiv, Istanbul and the UN pulled out of an agreement that allows safe passage of cargo ships.
Ukraine has vowed to find a way to continue exporting from the ports, and repeated Russian attacks on Odesa this week are an attempt to thwart and neutralize international efforts to restore the functioning of the “grain corridor”.
– Putin meets Lukashenko –
As Odesa cleared ruins from the Russian offensive, Putin hosted his closest ally, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, in his hometown of St. Petersburg — their first meeting since helping Minsk put down a rebellion by Russia’s Wagner forces.
Both leaders ruled out a Ukrainian counteroffensive to recapture territory seized by Russia.
“There is no counterattack,” Lukashenko told the meeting, before Putin interrupted: “There is one, but it failed.”
The Belarusian strongman now hosts Wagner fighters on his territory after a deal that convinced its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to end a march on Moscow and deport him to Belarus.
“We control what happens (with Wagner),” he said, thanking Putin for vowing to defend Belarus if attacked.
Wagner’s presence in Belarus has shaken EU and NATO member Poland, which has strengthened its border.
A new battalion of sappers will be formed in the country’s northeast, Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszak said on Sunday.
Polish, US, British, Romanian and Croatian soldiers were training side by side, he said during a visit to the northeastern city of Augusto.
The comments came two days after Putin said western Poland was a “gift” from Stalin at the end of World War II, when the victorious Allies decided the contours of postwar Europe. On this remark, Warsaw summoned the Russian ambassador.
Putin and Lukashenko have accused Warsaw of having territorial ambitions in Ukraine and Belarus.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded on Twitter.
“Putin’s attempts to drive a wedge between Kyiv and Warsaw are as futile as his failed invasion of Ukraine,” he wrote.
“Unlike Russia, Poland and Ukraine have learned from history and will always stand united against Russian imperialism and disrespect for international law.”
Fighting in Ukraine continued Sunday, and Ukraine’s military said Russia had fired 17 cruise missiles and two ballistic missiles.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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