(CN) — Russia struck at the heart of a Ukrainian city far from the front lines on Thursday morning in an attack that left more than 20 people dead and dozens wounded, producing gut-wrenching scenes of destruction and bloodshed.
Ukraine, meanwhile, was accused Thursday of striking at the heart of Donetsk, an eastern Ukrainian city that has been held by separatists since 2014, and killing at least two civilians and wounding several others at a central bus center.
Donetsk and Luhansk, another rebel-held city in the east, have come under frequent fire from Ukrainian forces since 2014, resulting in heavy civilian losses which have mostly gone unreported in the West, a fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed to when he launched the invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian missile strikes on Vinnytsia in west-central Ukraine hit the House of Officers, a building used for music concerts, and left the surrounding downtown area devastated. A neighboring medical facility was heavily damaged.
Videos from the scene showed huge plumes of smoke; what was reported to be a dead girl covered in a sheet with an overturned baby carriage amid debris nearby; a man carrying a bloodied boy in his arms; people staggering away from the blast drenched in blood; and many incinerated vehicles. Ukraine's Center for Strategic Communications distributed a video that it said showed a young girl happily pushing her stroller with her mother shortly before she was killed by the blast and her mother was seriously wounded.
At least 22 people, including three children, were killed but dozens more were still missing and at least 52 people were being treated in hospitals, according to Ukrainian officials. More than 50 buildings were damaged by the Kalibr cruise missiles, which Ukraine said were launched by a Russian submarine in the Black Sea.
“I saw a fiery volcano that was flying through the window, after which I woke up on the floor,” a woman at the scene told Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet. “I don’t remember because I lost consciousness. I was already crawling on the street when I woke up, I don’t understand how it happened.”
Russia's defense ministry said it hit the House of Officers because the building was being used by Ukrainian “Nazi fighters,” as reported by Pravda, a Russian state news outlet.
Attacks on civilians are war crimes, but both sides may see them as a strategy to inflict deep harm on the civilian population in an effort to turn the public's mood against the war. Strikes against urban centers may also be seen as retaliatory and a brutal warning to the enemy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned the attack as a “act of terrorism.”
“Every day, Russia kills civilians, kills Ukrainian children, carries out missile attacks on civilian facilities where there is no military target. What is this if not an open act of terrorism?” Zelenskyy said on social media. “Inhuman. A killer country. A terrorist country.”
The strikes on civilians in Vinnytsia and Donetsk were among a barrage of attacks launched by both sides in recent days against military targets as the war builds toward potentially new heights of horror and pressure grows to find an exit to a conflict that threatens to grow into an even larger war.
On Thursday, there were fresh reports of important advances by Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist forces in the Donetsk region, one of two regions that make up the Donbas, as this territory in eastern Ukraine is known. Putin has made “liberating” this heavily ethnic Russian region of Ukraine a chief goal.
The military reports claimed that Russian forces had broken through Ukrainian defenses at the cities of Seversk and Soledar, opening the way for ground assaults on the key Donetsk cities of Kramatorsk, Slavyansk and Avdeevka.
In a potentially crucial insight, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Thursday told Pink TV, a Serbian channel, that Putin may be poised to propose some kind of cease-fire deal once Russia begins its assault on the cities of Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Avdeevka.
Vucic is believed to be one of the only European leaders to be in close communication with Putin. Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia, has refused to go along with Western sanctions against Russia. Serbia is not part of the European Union, though it is seeking entry.
“If they don't accept him, hell awaits us all,” Vucic said. “And they won't accept him.”
He predicted a scenario where Putin's demands for Ukraine to cede control of territories to Russia and reject membership in NATO will be rebuffed.
He warned that the Ukraine war – which he characterized as a conflict between the West and Russia – is at risk of becoming a world war.
“The prospect of a world war worries me the most. I'm afraid that there will be a much more serious military conflict than now,” Vucic said.
Vucic's comments coincided with statements from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko who said on Thursday that Ukraine must recognize the loss of Crimea and Donbas and proclaim its neutrality before any peace deal can work.
Ukraine continues to reject such an outcome and has become more confident in defeating Russia as the supply of advanced Western arms grows.
After months of stalled diplomacy, this week has seen some movement in negotiations.
Ukraine, Russia and Turkey said they were close to a deal that would allow grain shipments to resume from Ukraine. Also, the EU was easing tensions by telling Lithuania to allow the movement of Russian cargo to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave encircled by Lithuania and Poland.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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