It was dinner time and the restaurant – a popular pizza joint in the center of Kramatorsk – was crammed with people. Just after 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, a Russian missile ripped through, killing at least 11 people. For millions across the country, the strike was yet another reminder of the horrifying reality of life in Ukraine.
Authorities said three teenagers, including a 17-year-old girl and 14-year-old twin sisters Yulia and Anna Aksenchenko, were among those killed in the strike. At least 61 people, including a baby, were injured in the attack, State Emergency Services said, warning the toll could increase in the coming hours.
The strike – the deadliest attack against civilians in months – came just as Russia emerged from a major crisis sparked by a short-lived uprising led by the head of the Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin arrived in Belarus on Tuesday, after staging what was the biggest ever challenge to the authority of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Rescue workers are still searching the rubble, after having to temporarily pause the work late Tuesday night because of another air raid alarm.
The people of Kramatorsk are no strangers to Russian attacks. The eastern Ukrainian city lies about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the front line, according to the Institute for the Study of War’s assessments of the current situation on the ground.
But despite the proximity to the fighting, Kramatorsk remains a busy city. The area around Ria Lounge, the restaurant that was struck, is a particularly popular spot with a busy post office, a jewelery store, a cafe and a pharmacy all within a stone’s throw from Ria. One of Kramatorsk’s biggest supermarkets is just down the road.
Being so near the fighting, the city is popular with soldiers seeking some respite from the fighting.
The soldier, who asked to be identified only by his call sign Alex, said there had been a banquet for 45 people at one of the restaurants when the strike occurred, and that it hit “right in the center of the cafe.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the attack a “manifestation of terror.”
“Each such manifestation of terror proves over and over again to us and to the whole world that Russia deserves only one thing as a result of everything it has done – defeat and a tribunal, fair and legal trials against all Russian murderers and terrorists,” he said.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Dontesk region military administration, said the strike used Iskanders – high-precision, short-range ballistic missiles.
EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell echoed Zelensky’s words on Wednesday. “In another demonstration of the terror Russia is imposing on Ukrainian civilians, a Russian cruise missile hit a restaurant and shopping centre in Kramatorsk,” Borrell said in a post on Twitter.
Kramatorsk, has been the target of frequent shelling since the war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The city was briefly occupied by separatists in 2014, but has remained under Ukrainian control since then.
The Ukrainian Security Service alleged on Wednesday that the attack was premeditated, saying that it had detained a man who allegedly scouted the restaurant and sent a video to the Russian Armed Forces prior to the strike Tuesday.
The man was described by the Ukrainians as a “Russian intelligence agent” and an “adjuster.”
“To execute the enemy’s instructions, the GRU agent took a covert video recording of the establishment and vehicles parked nearby. Then the suspect forwarded the footage to Russian military intelligence,” the service said in a statement on Telegram.
“Having received this information, Russian invaders fired on the cafe with people inside,” it added.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed on Wednesday that the target of the missile strike in Kramatorsk was “a temporary command post” of a Ukrainian army unit.
Separately, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that Russia “does not strike at civilian infrastructure” and the strikes are carried out “only on objects that are connected with military infrastructure.”
The frequency and intensity of the attacks increased after Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine in February 2022. One attack in particular sparked international outrage and led to accusations of Russia deliberately targeting civilians.
In April last year, Russian forces carried out a missile strike on Kramatorsk’s railway station which was being used to shelter civilians fleeing the fighting.
More than 50 people, including several children, died in that one attack, which was called “an apparent war crime” by Human Rights Watch and SITU Research.
According to their report, several hundred civilians were waiting at the station when “a ballistic missile equipped with a cluster munition warhead exploded and released dozens of bomblets, or submunitions.”