The toll of a devastating missile strike in Dnipro increased as more bodies are pulled from the wreckage of one of the deadliest attacks since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine 11 months ago.
Residents gathered on Monday to watch cranes remove collapsed sections of the Soviet-style residential building that was ripped open by a strike in central Ukraine two days earlier.
Ukrainian emergency services said 40 people died, including three children, and 34 people remained missing.
Kyiv blamed Moscow for the attack, but the Kremlin said Russian forces were not responsible and pointed to an unsubstantiated theory circulating on social media that Ukrainian air defense systems caused the damage.
“The Russian armed forces do not hit residential buildings or social infrastructure. They are hitting military targets,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, suggesting Kyiv’s air defenses knocked a Russian missile off course.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday evening that search operations would continue as long as necessary and condemned Russia’s “cowardly silence” on the attack, but the chances of finding more survivors appeared slim Monday after- noon.
Russia and Belarus hold military exercises
The rising cost of the strike came as Russia and its close ally Belarus held joint military exercises.
Belarus, one of the only countries to back Russia unquestioningly throughout the conflict, allowed Moscow’s forces to launch their invasion from Belarusian territory in February.
Its defense ministry said the air force drills would involve joint “tactical” flights and all airfields in Belarus would be involved.
“The exercise is purely defensive in nature,” said Pavel Muraveyko, first deputy state secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, in remarks released by the Defense Ministry on Sunday.
Al Jazeera’s Ali Hashem, reporting from Moscow, said the exercises “will mainly focus on patrols [and] supplies during operations”.
“They’ve been described as defensive drills, not offensive ones, so that’s usually the perspective that’s discussed whenever this issue of drills comes up,” Hashem said.
“But Belarus’ role in the war raises many concerns [and] if this is going to have an impact,” he said.
Meanwhile, the UN’s atomic watchdog, Rafael Grossi, was expected in Ukraine on Monday to deploy observer missions to nuclear power plants across the country. Securing and protecting nuclear sites was a major concern throughout the Russian invasion.
“I am proud to lead this mission in Ukraine, where we are deploying to all nuclear power plants in the country. [nuclear power plants] to provide nuclear safety and security assistance,” he said on Twitter.
In another sign that the war is having effects far beyond Ukraine, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht resigned on Monday after months of criticism of Berlin’s stuttered response to the war in Ukraine.
As the nearly year-long war drags on, Ukraine is pressing its Western donors to provide its forces with tanks, especially the German-designed Leopard model.
This weekend, Britain pledged 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, making it the first Western country to supply the heavy tanks requested by Kyiv.
Peskov predicted they would have little effect on Ukraine’s war effort.
“These tanks are burning and will burn,” the Kremlin spokesman said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with German media on Sunday that “the recent pledges to purchase heavy war equipment are significant – and I expect more of them in the near future.”
Poland’s prime minister on Monday urged the German government to provide a wide range of weapons to Kyiv and expressed hope that Berlin would soon approve a transfer of main battle tanks.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, DC, reported signs the Kremlin was trying to turn its invasion into “a major conventional war” after months of embarrassing military setbacks.
Russia has been driven out of many territories seized in recent months by a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“The Kremlin is likely preparing for decisive strategic action in the next six months designed to regain the initiative and end Ukraine’s current streak of operational successes,” the institute said in a report late Sunday. .
He noted that reports indicated that the Russian military command was in “serious preparation” for an expanded mobilization effort, retaining personnel mobilized for future use while seeking to boost military industrial production and overhaul its command structure.
This means that Ukraine’s Western allies “will have to continue to support Ukraine for the long term”, the think tank said.
Separately on Monday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were continuing to shell the southern city of Kherson, which Ukraine retook late last year.
Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said a woman was killed in an attack on a residential building and that Russian forces also damaged an empty children’s hospital.
In Crimea, Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, the Moscow-appointed official responsible for the military town of Sevastopol said Russian forces shot down seven drones in a 24-hour period.