Russia pounds Ukraine as Putin holds talks in Tehran

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian missiles struck cities and villages in eastern and southern Ukraine, hitting homes, a school and a community center on Tuesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Iran to discuss a U.N.-backed proposal to unblock exports of Ukrainian grain.

In Kramatorsk, a city in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province considered a likely Russian occupation target, one person was killed and 10 wounded in an airstrike that hit a five-story apartment building, regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

Fresh blood stained the concrete amid green leaves shorn off trees as nearby apartments on at least two floors burned. Shrapnel was placed in a small pile near an empty playground.

“There was no one here. Everything is ruined,” said Halyna Maydannyk, a resident of one burned apartment. “Who knows why they’re doing this? We were all living peacefully.”

Kramatorsk residents Mykola Zavodovskyi and Tetiana Zavodovska stood in bandages outside a hospital. They heard a loud clap and went to their balcony to investigate, then everything exploded and the windows shattered.

“Probably it was a rocket, and probably it was brought down by Ukrainian forces,” Zavodovska said.

The midday strike came after Kyrylenko had reported four earlier Russian strikes in Kramatorsk and urged civilians to evacuate.

On the humanitarian front, Putin planned a high-stakes meeting in Tehran on Tuesday with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought to broker talks on a peaceful settlement of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as well as help negotiations to unblock Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea. As the West heaps sanctions on Russia and the costly campaign drags on, Putin is also seeking to bolster ties with Iran, a fellow target of severe U.S. sanctions and a potential military and trade partner.

In the Odesa region in southern Ukraine, Russian forces fired seven Kalibr cruise missiles overnight. The Russian Defense Ministry said strikes on the village of Bilenke achieved a legitimate military goal and “destroyed depots of ammunition for weapons supplied by the United States and European countries.”

A local official disputed Moscow’s claim and said six people were wounded.

“These strikes on peaceful people have one goal — to intimidate the population and the authorities and keep them in constant tension,” Serhiy Bratchuk, the speaker of the Odesa regional government, told Ukrainian television.

With indications that Ukraine is planning counterattacks to retake occupied areas, the Russian military in recent weeks has targeted Odesa and parts of southern Ukraine where its troops captured cities earlier in the war.

In the east, Ukrainian forces are fighting to hold onto the declining territory under their control. Donetsk has been cut off from gas supplies and partly from water and power as the Russians try to complete their capture of the province. Russia’s ground advance has slowed, in part because Ukraine is using more effective U.S. weapons and partly because of what Putin has called an “operational pause.” Russia has been focusing more on aerial bombardment using long-range missiles.

“The infrastructure of the cities is being methodically destroyed by missile strikes, and the civilian population, cut off from bare necessities, suffers the most,” Kyrylenko said.

Russian-installed officials in the southern region of Kherson, under Moscow’s control since early in the war, said Ukrainian forces damaged the only bridge in the city of Kherson over the Dnipro River, east of Odesa. Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Kherson region’s Kremlin-backed administration, told the Russian news agency Interfax that Ukrainian forces used American-made rocket launchers to damage the bridge in an attempt to cut Kherson off from the left bank of the Dnipro.

Ukrainian officials have spoken of plans for a counter-offensive to retake Kherson and other southern Ukrainian territory from the Russians.

Serhiy Khlan, an official with the Ukrainian administration of the Kherson region, tacitly confirmed the strike on Ukrainian television, reporting “a precise hit” and explosion in the area of the bridge.

Ukraine and Russia continued their sporadic exchanges of bodies of fallen soldiers. Each side gave the other 45 soldiers’ bodies in the Zaporizhzhia region. Russia’s Ria-Novosti news agency said the soldiers had been killed in Mariupol, the Azov Sea city that captured worldwide attention because of a weeks-long siege of a steel plant.

At least two civilians were killed and 15 more were wounded by Russian shelling across Ukraine over the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said in a morning update.

With Russia’s missiles hitting cities 799 kilometers (497 miles) apart Tuesday, “there remains a high level of threat of missile strikes throughout the territory of Ukraine,” said Oleksandr Shtupun, spokesman of the General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces.

The missile strikes came as the British military said it believes Russia is struggling to keep up its troop strength in its grinding war of attrition that began with the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

The British Defense Ministry said in a Tuesday assessment that Russia “has struggled to sustain effective offensive combat power since the start of the invasion, and this problem is likely becoming increasingly acute” as Moscow seeks to conquer the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The British military added: “While Russia may still make further territorial gains, their operational tempo and rate of advance is likely to be very slow without a significant operational pause for reorganization and refit.”

In other developments Tuesday:

— Ukraine’s parliament approved President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to dismiss Ivan Bakanov as head of the country’s Security Service, the SBU. Zelenskyy proposed removing Bakanov, as well as Iryna Venediktova, who served as Ukraine’s prosecutor general, over the weekend. The parliament separately voted to approve Venediktova’s ouster, and then Zelenskyy signed a decree finalizing the decision. As part of the reshuffle stemming from alleged collaboration with Russian authorities, Zelenskyy on Tuesday also fired heads of five regional branches of the SBU and one deputy head of the agency.

— Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, visited Washington at the invitation of U.S. first lady Jill Biden. Zelenska met Monday with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Blinken assured her of the United States’ commitment to Ukraine, and commended her for her work with civilians dealing with trauma and other damage from the war. Zelenska was expected to meet with Jill Biden on Tuesday.

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Cara Anna contributed to this report from Kramatorsk.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine