Several Russian commanders including the general leading the Kremlin’s forces in southern Ukraine were killed or badly injured in a Storm Shadow missile strike on Friday, Kyiv has claimed.
Lt Gen Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said the missile attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol had been timed to coincide with a meeting of senior military leaders.
He said that at least nine Russian soldiers or sailors had been killed and 16 injured, including Col Gen Alexander Romanchuk and Lt Gen Oleg Tsekov, who both were in serious condition.
“The number of injured regular servicemen who are not employees of the headquarters is still being determined. These are military personnel who are on duty, security, and so on,” he said.
Gen Romanchuk is the commander of Russian forces currently fighting to hold back Ukraine’s advances along the southern front line and Gen Tsekov is commander of ground forces usually based in Arctic Russia.
But Gen Budanov refused to confirm the rumoured death of Admiral Viktor Sokolov, commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Neither the Russian ministry of defence nor well-connected Russian bloggers have commented on casualties from the strikes.
Photos from the smoking ruins of the grand neo-classical building in Sevastopol showed that it had virtually been destroyed after being hit by as many as three Storm Shadow cruise missiles.
Ukraine has been striking Crimea increasingly regularly with missiles over the past few weeks, striking a command post and badly damaging a submarine and landing craft under repair in a dry dock in separate attacks.
On Saturday, Russian news sources reported at least two more missile attacks on the occupied peninsula, while local authorities claimed that air defence systems had shot down at least one Ukrainian missile.
Ukraine has killed several Russian commanders in missile strikes, but Friday’s attack is one of its most high-profile.
John Foreman, a former British military attache in Moscow, said that the missile strikes showed a typical lack of care by Russian commanders.
“Another self-inflicted disaster for the incompetents of the Russian Black Sea Fleet,” he said.
Analysts have said that Ukrainian commanders want to prove to their Western allies that they can take the fight to the Crimean peninsula before winter weather bogs down their forces along the front lines.
They have mocked Russian air defence systems for failing to protect Sevastopol from attack.
Video of the attack showed that there had been no warning and no air raid siren. Tourists filmed the missiles hitting the headquarters in the middle of the city as their children played on the waterfront.
Ukrainian commanders have said that one of the main aims of the attacks is to erode confidence in the Kremlin and, in online chatrooms, Sevastopol residents complained about the lack of planning by the authorities.
“At the Fleet’s headquarters! In the centre of the city!” one user wrote. “When will everybody wake up?”
But, as well as undermining Russian confidence in the Kremlin, the missile strikes on Crimea also boost morale among Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines, according to a Ukrainian general.
“It helps us but it also gives us hope for the future,” General Oleksandr Tarnavskiy told CNN of the reaction among his men to the news that Ukrainian missiles had destroyed the Black Sea Fleet headquarters.
Some of Ukraine’s Western allies have said that Ukraine has advanced too slowly and even the US has said that Ukraine will fail to achieve its original objectives for the offensive.
Gen Tarnavskiy, who is leading Ukraine’s forces in the south as they press on with their counter-offensive, said that fighting was tough as “it isn’t like the movies”.
But he also confirmed that his forces had breached the first Russian defensive line in the southern sector of the front line.
“On the left flank (near the village of Verbove) we have a breakthrough and we continue to advance further,” he said.