(CN) — Fighting on Saturday raged for a 24th day in Ukraine in and around several cities and the war seemed to be taking an ominous turn with Russia's military saying it had used a hypersonic missile for the first time to destroy an underground ammunitions depot.
Russian troops also entered the central parts of Mariupol, a key southern port city, and intense battles were taking place in city streets, hindering rescue efforts at a bombed theater where hundreds of people are feared buried under rubble.
More than 130 people had been pulled from the theater’s basements, where they were sheltering, but it remains unclear how many are still under the rubble. Ukraine accuses a Russian warplane of bombing the building on Wednesday. Russia accuses Ukrainian troops of blowing it up.
Fighting on Saturday continued to rage in several parts of Ukraine, including around the devastated cities of Kharkiv in the northeast, Severodonetsk in the east and Mykolaiv in the south.
There were indications that both sides were concentrating forces on an eastern city called Izyium south of Kharkiv. The city may be critical for some 60,000 Ukrainian soldiers, among the most war-hardened, who are in danger of getting encircled by Russian forces and cut off from supplies. These troops were stationed along the frontline in Donbas where Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists have been fighting for the past eight years.
It appeared that Russian forces were making slow advances in some areas. An amphibious assault on the historic Black Sea port city of Odessa remained a possibility too as Russian warships and submarines sat offshore. Odessa has dug in for an assault on a city that is the principal port for Ukraine’s exports, such as its vast shipments of grains. The war has prompted concerns about a global rise in food prices that could cause further unrest around the world. The war, so far, has spared much of the vast hinterland of Ukraine where much of the country’s wheat is planted.
On Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it launched a hypersonic missile on Friday that struck a large underground storage facility for missiles and ammunition in western Ukraine. This marked the first time Russia has used one of these long-range ballistic missiles — known as its “Kinzhal” bombs, the Russian word for dagger — in a war. Hypersonic missiles are so fast, five times the speed of sound, that air defense systems find them hard to track.
Russia also said it launched sophisticated missiles at radio surveillance centers near Odessa. On Friday, it launched a missile strike that hit a barracks near Nikolaev, reportedly killing at least 50 Ukrainian soldiers. On Saturday, there were reports of Russia was using heavy duty thermobaric artillery against Ukrainian forces. These kind of bombs cause massive explosions.
The use of more missiles and more advanced artillery signals that Russia’s strategy may be changing as its full-scale ground invasion meets with heavy losses. Russia may feel it’s time to wear Ukrainian forces down with missiles, but it’s a strategy that could see the war drag on even longer.
Western military experts were dismissive of Russia’s chances of shifting the war to its advantage with hypersonic missiles. Increasingly, Western military analysts believe Russia’s invasion has been a fiasco and that Putin underestimated the will and ability of Ukrainians to resist.
“It's a sign of showmanship. Even if it's used we should consider it as an isolated moment because Russia doesn't have a large number of these missiles,” Dominika Kunertova of the Center for Security Studies in Zurich told the BBC.