(CN) — Russia launched a barrage of missiles at Ukraine on Thursday as Kyiv and its Western backers claimed that Ukrainian forces were mounting a strong counteroffensive in the south of the country.
As the war raged for a 155th day there were hopes that vital grain shipments from Ukrainian ports were set to resume, perhaps as early as Thursday.
Last week, a deal was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to unblock Ukrainian and Russian shipments of grains and fertilizers through the Black Sea, a development that has eased fears over the spread of famine in the poorest parts of the world.
But the resumption of grain shipments has been stalled, in part due to a lack of willing ship insurers and because sea lanes are threatened by sea mines. Also, a Russian missile strike on Odesa's port within a day of a signing ceremony in Istanbul last Friday cast a shadow over the agreement. The strike was widely condemned, though the rockets apparently hit military targets in the port.
Russia's battery of missiles on Thursday – many allegedly launched from Belarus – hit targets in several parts of Ukraine, killing and wounding numerous people, including civilians, according to Ukrainian officials. Missiles reportedly hit in the regions of Kyiv, Mykolayiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Kirovohrad.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces continued to launch rockets at Russian-held areas in Ukraine, killing and wounding people there, including civilians.
Russia's volley of missiles came on the same day that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy exalted a national holiday marking the moment 1,034 years ago when Volodymyr the Great, a powerful prince of ancient Kyivan Rus', adopted Christianity.
Last year, Zelenskyy changed the name of this national holiday from the Day of Baptism of Kyivan Rus' to the Day of Ukrainian Statehood.
Both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists lay claim to Volodymyr the Great and Kyivan Rus' as the origins of East Slavic culture and the subject has turned extremely bitter since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Putin has questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine as a state and said Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” But Ukrainian nationalists reject this Russocentric interpretation and argue that Russia has spent centuries suppressing Ukrainian independence and that they are now fighting against a new chapter of Russian colonialism.
In a video message, Zelenskyy said Ukraine has “existed on this land from time immemorial” and that “from time immemorial there have been attempts to both enslave and destroy it.”
He said Ukraine had a “history of indomitability” and that his country was “now admired by all of Europe and the whole world.”
“Today we defend it with weapons in hands,” Zelenskyy said. “For 155 days in a row. We can say that for us, Statehood Day is every day. Every day we fight so that everyone on the planet finally understands: we are not a colony, not an enclave, not a protectorate.”
Zelenskyy vowed that Russian forces will be pushed out of Ukraine.
“We will not stop until we liberate the last meter of Ukrainian land,” Zelenskyy said. “We will not rest until we liberate our last village, our last house, our last well, our last cherry tree, our last willow tree.”
Kyiv and its Western backers have touted an attempt by Ukraine to mount a counteroffensive in the southern region of Kherson as a turning point in the war.
In recent days, Ukraine has struck strategic bridges across the Dnieper River in Kherson, rendering at least one major bridge unusable and leaving Russian troops in the city of Kherson at risk of being cut off. Ukraine says it is using U.S.-supplied missiles to strike Russian targets in Kherson.
On Thursday, British military intelligence said the counteroffensive was “gathering momentum” and that Ukrainian forces have likely crossed the Ingulets River and established a bridgehead at the northern end of the region. It said Russian troops in Kherson were “highly vulnerable” and that the city was cut off. Ukraine hopes to recapture the city, which fell under Russian control early in the invasion.
“Its loss would severely undermine Russia's attempts to paint the occupation as a success,” the British defense ministry said.
Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, told RBC-Ukraine that Ukraine will be able to push Russian forces out of areas they've captured by the end of the year as long as Western weapons continue to arrive quickly.
“The situation is already turning significantly in favor of Ukraine,” Hodges said, as reported by Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency. “I expect active hostilities to continue in the winter. Ukraine will probably want to keep up the pressure on Russian forces which I believe are exhausted ... And the Russian logistics system is especially exhausted.”
But Russia-backed authorities in Kherson denied that Ukrainian forces were closing in on the city and Russia's defense ministry claimed that it was hitting Ukrainian forces hard in Kherson and killing hundreds of fighters.
Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of a military-civilian administration in Kherson, said on social media that claims of a successful counteroffensive were “sheer lies.”
Russia, though, is reportedly shifting a large number of troops and equipment toward Kherson to fend off Ukraine's counterattack. At the same time, efforts to hold a referendum in Kherson to lay the ground for its annexation by Russia continue to move ahead too.
Meanwhile, fighting continued to rage in eastern Ukraine with fierce battles being reported in the Donetsk region, one of two regions that make up the Donbas, a territory that is home to many Russian speakers and which the Kremlin is determined to capture.
Russia's advances in Donetsk appear to have slowed down, though its troops this week took possession of Ukraine's second-largest power plant in Vuhlehirsk.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.