Russian missiles blast civilians in Ukraine A Russian missile struck a crowded shopping mall last month, killing 21 people and injuring dozens more. It was just one of many instances when Russia hit Ukraine's civilian areas.

Russian missiles are blasting civilians in Ukraine

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Ukraine, Russia has stepped up what appear to be deliberate missile attacks on civilians. Russian officials claim they are precision strikes on military targets. From Ukraine, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on what may be behind these strikes.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It was a hot summer afternoon. Ihor Mykhaylov and his wife decided to go into the Amstor shopping mall here in Kremenchuk to get out of the sun and buy some water. Minutes later, a Soviet-era missile crashed into the complex. Mykhaylov's wife and 20 other people were killed.

IHOR MYKHAYLOV: (Through interpreter) When I woke up, I realized I'd lost my arm. There were blocks of concrete that had fallen around me. I was lying under them. I realized I had to crawl out of there.

BEAUBIEN: The 53-year-old construction worker is one of nearly 60 people seriously injured in the blast. Russian officials initially claimed that the mall was empty and the casualties staged. The mall is adjacent to a large factory, Kredmash, which makes paving equipment. Moments after the first strike, a second missile hit the industrial complex.

VIKTOR SHUBKOH: (Through interpreter) So here is the place where their missile hit.

BEAUBIEN: Viktor Shubkoh is the deputy head of the plant. The strike occurred after most of the workers had left for the day. It injured two security guards, damaged one assembly line and blew out a lot of windows. Moscow claims Ukraine was using this factory to hide weapons. Shubkoh laughs when asked about this, saying he heard this rumor too from Russian media.

SHUBKOH: (Through interpreter) So you can see all our storage is open, so you can see that there is no place to keep any kind of military machines here.

BEAUBIEN: Yet this is a massive industrial complex. It covers nearly 60 acres. The compound is a collection of warehouses and metalworking factories with direct access to rail lines and truck loading docks. It certainly has the potential to hide weapons. Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former head of the U.S. Army in Europe, says the plant appears to have been the intended target. Russia is desperate, he says, to stop Western military supplies from reaching the front lines in the east.

BEN HODGES: You know, they have not been able to in any way effectively disrupt the logistical network inside Ukraine. So all the ammunition, the equipment that the West is providing, it's largely been undisrupted.

BEAUBIEN: Moscow, however, has burned through the bulk of its precision missiles, he says, so the Russians are now using missiles built 40 years ago that lack sophisticated targeting systems. Russia doesn't have the ability to strike moving trains or trucks inside Ukraine, Hodges says. So they're going after suspected weapons warehouses and transfer points.

HODGES: I mean, the Russian air force does not even come into Ukrainian airspace because they are - they have failed to achieve air superiority. They're terrified of Ukrainian air force and air defense.

BEAUBIEN: And so they launch missiles from hundreds of miles away. If they end up killing innocent bystanders, Hodges says, this plays into Russia's scorched-earth policy. They try to terrify the local population, he adds, to undercut Ukrainian support for the war.

HODGES: That's what this is about. And so how do you achieve maximum terror? You hit a shopping mall at peak hours.

BEAUBIEN: Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denounced the strike on the mall as a war crime. Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of the Center for Civil Liberties Ukraine, agrees. She says it's irrelevant if Russian commanders believed they were aiming for military targets.

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: You have always to evaluate the possible damage for civilians, even when you try to hit a military object.

BEAUBIEN: Russia routinely isn't doing that evaluation, she says. Hodges, the retired lieutenant general, says he expects Russian strikes on civilians to continue and maybe even increase as military leaders in Moscow grow more frustrated with what they expected to be a quick war. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kremenchuk, Ukraine.

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