KYIV, Ukraine — Russia unleashed a salvo of rocket, drone and missile strikes against Ukrainian towns and cities overnight Thursday and into Friday, creating scenes of destruction inside the country hours before the Kremlin announced the annexation of a wide swath of eastern Ukraine.
The most lethal strike landed in Zaporizhzhia, one of the four Ukrainian provinces that the Kremlin claimed on Friday following an annexation process that has been condemned by the West as a sham and that comes after a humiliating battlefield defeat in eastern Ukraine. The attack killed 25 civilians who were waiting at a checkpoint and bus stop and injured another 66, Ukraine’s prosecutor general said. That would make it one of the deadliest single attacks against civilians in recent weeks.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine condemned the strike on the checkpoint as the work of “terrorists,” while Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, called it “horrific news.”
The wave of overnight attacks came before President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in a defiant and bellicose speech on Friday, declared the four regions — Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Luhansk and Donetsk — where battles are raging to be Russian territory. Moscow says it will now be defending rather than attacking the territory and will use any means necessary to do so, a thinly veiled nuclear threat.
Yet, even as the Russian leader spoke, Mr. Zelensky announced that Ukraine had formally applied for “accelerated accession” to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while Ukrainian officials said the country’s military forces had moved closer to encircling the Russian-occupied town of Lyman, a strategically important hub in the Donetsk region that lies inside the territory Mr. Putin is claiming.
“It is in Ukraine that the fate of democracy in the confrontation with tyranny is being decided,” Mr. Zelensky said. “It is here, with the firmness of our state borders, that we can secure the firmness of the borders of all European states.” Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine’s NATO application could be fast-tracked, like the applications of Sweden and Finland.
In the past, NATO members, who are treaty-bound to defend all countries in the alliance against attack, have resisted granting membership to countries with unresolved territorial disputes. But at a news conference on Friday, NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said the alliance would consider Ukraine’s application.
In his statement, Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine had sought for years to negotiate a security settlement with Russia, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Now, he said, he would never negotiate so long as Mr. Putin remained Russia’s leader. “It is obvious that this is impossible with this Russian president,” he said.
In Ukraine, the heavy Russian bombardment of civilian targets combined with an annexation ceremony in Moscow that was seen as pompous and even delusional elicited a stream of venomous, angry commentary.
“Pain and rage,” wrote a Ukrainian Facebook user, Angelina Koshel, summing up the mood as Russia asserted ownership over territory its army occupies in Ukraine, along with large areas it has failed to capture or has retreated from.
“Is this how the enemy invites us into Russia?” Ms. Koshel wrote. “There will be no forgiveness for the murderers of peaceful people.”
The strike on the checkpoint and bus stop in Zaporizhzhia sprayed shrapnel into vehicles packed with passengers. On the roadside, a deep crater was gouged into fertile black soil, and bodies lay scattered about beside damaged cars and minivans.
People at the checkpoint were waiting to be allowed into Russian-occupied territory to pick up relatives and deliver humanitarian aid, the governor of Zaporizhzhia, Oleksandr Starukh, said in a message on the Telegram social media app. “All were civilians, our compatriots,” he added.
Also on Friday, rockets and Iranian-made kamikaze drones that Russia’s military recently acquired hit residential neighborhoods in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, killing at least three people and wounding 19, the regional governor said, and a missile strike on a parking lot for buses in the city of Dnipro killed one person and ignited a fire that burned 52 buses.
For Ukrainians, the celebratory tone in Moscow appeared delusional not only for the contrast with macabre scenes at the sites of missile and rocket strikes. It also came just weeks after the Ukrainian army inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Russian military in a counteroffensive in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, which forced the Russians to retreat, leaving destroyed tanks and their own war dead behind on the roadsides.
Ukrainian officials have consistently said they will disregard Russia’s territorial claims and press ahead with counteroffensives in eastern Ukraine and around the southern port city of Kherson. In addition to nearing the encirclement of the strategically important town of Lyman, a Russian logistics hub in eastern Ukraine, on Friday the Ukrainian military captured the town of Yampil in the Donetsk region, the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper reported.
In total, the Russian rocket and missile barrages in and near the four provinces Russia asserted it had annexed killed 30 civilians and wounded at least 107 others, the Ukrainian regional authorities said.
The result was deep anger at Russia within Ukraine on a day presented in Moscow as one of reunion for two brotherly peoples.
Borys Filatov, the mayor of Dnipro, one of the cities hit in bombardments, wrote that he hoped to see Russian soldiers “hang on trees” like the debris from the explosions he saw at the site of a missile strike. “Only the strength of our revenge matters,” Mr. Filatov said.
The city of Zaporizhzhia, a large regional center on the Dnipro River, is often the first stop for civilians fleeing Russian-controlled territory farther south. It is a place where they can find food and shelter before moving to other parts of the country, usually farther west, away from the fighting. But every day there are also long convoys of vehicles headed the other direction, into Russian-controlled territory. It was at this crossing point, pivotal for family reunions and humanitarian aid shipments, that the deadliest barrage struck.
In the civilian victims of the strike, Oleksiy Voronin, the founder of an aid group whose minivans where perforated by shrapnel on Friday, saw a cruel warning from Moscow. “The events of today are like a message” from Russia, he said, though one he would never accept. “It is not your territory.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.