Ukraine launched a massive missile barrage against four Russian military positions in occupied Crimea on Wednesday.
The head of Ukraine’s air force praised a “cleansing of Crimea from the Russian presence”, and indicated that British Storm Shadow missiles fired from Kyiv’s jets were used in the raid.
It came a day after Ukrainian forces struck a radar station used by air defence systems in north-western Crimea.
Explosions and active surface-to-air interceptors were reported in the major port city of Sevastopol and the nearby military airfield of Belbek.
Footage of the strike at the Russian air base shared on social media appeared to show a huge plume of smoke rising into the sky. A second video showed another missile striking near the source of the smoke.
Lt Gen Mykola Oleshchuk, the head of Ukraine’s air force, said: “Ukrainian aviators will definitely return home to their native airfield. And now I thank everyone who joined the cleansing of Crimea from the Russian presence.”
The Russian ministry of defence claimed it had shot down a salvo of 20 Ukrainian missiles over the Black Sea and the occupied peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.
Fragments from downed missiles also crashed into a military unit in Lyubimovka, which is near the Belbek air base.
The Kremlin said there was no damage to any “aviation equipment” in its statement, while Crimea’s Russian-installed governor said there had been no casualties as a result of the Ukrainian strikes.
The Telegraph was unable to verify either side’s claims.
The missile attack came after one of Kyiv’s most senior generals suggested it was poised to launch a renewed counter-offensive to dislodge Russian forces, which could come as soon as the “early spring”.
“Some time in the early spring, Russia’s offensive will be completely exhausted,” Kyrylo Budanov, head of the HUR military intelligence agency, said on Ukrainian television.
“We make a move, the enemy makes a move. Now is the enemy’s turn. It will end, and then ours will start,” he added.
Intelligence chief could replace Ukraine’s top general
The military spymaster has planned a series of covert raids and operations, and is now amongst the front runners to replace Ukraine’s top general.
He was named alongside Gen Oleksandr Syrsky, the head of Ukraine’s ground forces, as Volodymyr Zelensky seeks to replace commander-in-chief Gen Valery Zaluzhny.
But the Ukrainian president was on Wednesday stalling on issuing the order to confirm his dismissal amid a potential backlash from the public and within the military ranks.
A source close to Gen Budanov denied that the military intelligence chief had already turned down the top job as speculation continued over the role.
Ukraine also announced the return of 207 prisoners of war in an exchange with Russia – in a deal partially negotiated by the spymaster.
It was the first prisoner swap since Moscow claimed 65 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed after Kyiv’s forces downed a Russian military transport plane carrying them.
Meanwhile, five EU leaders took a veiled swipe at France over its bid to tie their military support for Ukraine to companies based in the bloc.
War chest funds
Leaders from the bloc’s 27 member states hope to sign off on the latest update of the European Peace Facility, a Brussels war chest used to fund arms transfers to Ukraine, at a summit on Thursday.
On the negotiating table is a €5 billion (£4.2 billion) top-up to the fund, but also a shift away from reimbursing countries’ military donations to Kyiv to financing arms production.
The latest scheme, which will only guarantee deliveries for the rest of the year, marks a step back from previous plans to finalise a four-year commitment of €20 billion.
France is pushing to ensure the money is only funnelled through European arms manufacturers in joint procurement orders by the member states.
European capitals fear that excluding companies based in the UK and US from the scheme will simply slow down deliveries to Ukraine at its time of need.
“The ways are less important,” the five leaders wrote in an open letter published in the Financial Times. “The ends and means are critical.”
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