July 24 (UPI) — Russian forces shelled southern Ukrainian cities on Sunday as Russian leaders expanded their propaganda war against Ukraine, as well as the United States and its allies, in preparation for expected referenda to annex occupied areas.
“Over the past 24 hours, the enemy carried out shellings of Ukrainian defenders’ positions using tank gunnery, artillery and [multiple rocket launchers] along the entire contact line,” the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration said in a statement to Telegram.
With fighting having shifted in the past week from the eastern Donbas region, the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration in the south said that Russian forces shelled civilian infrastructure near the villages of Novooleksandrivka, Hryhorivka, Kanivske, Kamianske, Zaliznychne, Huliaipole and Orikhiv.
“There were 11 reports of destruction of civilian infrastructure as a result of shelling by Russian occupation forces,” the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration said.
Zaporizhzhia is the Ukrainian province that runs from the city by the same name on the Dnipro River to Melitopol on the Sea of Azov.
“During the day, the civilian population was evacuated from the temporarily occupied territory. A total of 1,066 people, including 345 children, were evacuated,” the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration said.
Valentin Reznichenko, the regional military administrator for the Dnipro province that borders Zaporizhzhia, said on Telegram that Saturday night into Sunday was “relatively quiet” after Russian forces shelled the cities of Nikopol and Kryvorizky and nearby villages the night before.
No injuries were reported in that shelling, according to Reznichenko.
Russian forces fired 13 missiles at military and infrastructure facilities in the central Ukrainian province of Kirovohrad, the regional military administrator Andriy Raikovych said on Telegram.
Raikovych said the attack on the Kirovohrad region, which is along supply routes for fighting in southern Ukraine, included at least eight sea-based Kalibr missiles which hit the Kanatove military airfield and killed an unspecified number of people.
“Yesterday’s rocket attacks in the Kirovohrad Oblast were so powerful and barbaric that even houses in Kropyvnytskyi were damaged by the shock wave!” Raikovych said on Sunday.
The strikes came after Russian missiles hit the Ukrainian port of Odesa on Saturday even after Moscow signed an agreement to free up large shipments of grain stuck at Black Sea export hubs.
Russian Kalibr-type cruise missiles damaged infrastructure at the Odesa Commercial Seaport, while two other missiles were shot down by Ukrainian air defenses, a spokesman for Odesa regional Gov. Serhiy Bratchuk said in a Telegram post.
Local lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko said the port caught on fire after the attack. The Ukrainian military reported there were no casualties and no grain silos were damaged.
“Today’s Russian missile attack on Odesa, on our port, is a cynical one, and it was also a blow to the political positions of Russia itself,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message to Facebook on Saturday night.
“We see the absolute unanimity of the world’s reaction to this strike. The occupiers can no longer deceive anyone.”
The British Defense Ministry, which has been providing intelligence updates throughout the war, addressed Russian propaganda efforts in its intelligence update Sunday after Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Russia had expanded the scope of its war beyond the Donbas region.
The Donbas region, which comprises the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, has been largely held by pro-Russian separatists since Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Luhansk and Donetsk as independent republics before the start of the invasion on Feb. 24.
Experts have previously said Putin will try to annex the Donbas region into Russia in the coming months.
“Lavrov claimed that the operation now included new additional areas, including the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as a result of Western countries supplying longer range weapons to Ukraine,” the British Defense Ministry said Sunday.
“This is almost certainly not true. Russia has not ‘expanded’ its war; maintaining long-term control of these areas was almost certainly an original goal of the invasion. Russia invaded these areas in February.”
The British Defense Ministry noted that occupation authorities “have been publicly discussing the prospects for legal independent referendums since at least mid-March.”
“There is a realistic possibility that Lavrov made the comments to pave the way for referenda to take place in occupied territories beyond Luhansk and Donetsk,” the British Defense Ministry said.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., said in an analysis on Sunday that Russia is beginning to take measures “to isolate occupied areas from the non-Russian information space” in preparation for annexation referenda.
However, the think tank said that Ukrainian forces “are likely preparing to launch, or have already launched, a counteroffensive” in the Kherson province in the south of Ukraine — making gains in taking back areas that Russia had seized.
Meanwhile, Lavrov wrote in an article published in newspapers in four African countries he will visit this week including Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo in order to boost support of Russia on the continent and blame the United States and the west for food shortages.
“Russia-Africa ties are based on the time-tested bonds of friendship and cooperation. Our country who has not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism, has always sincerely supported Africans in their struggle for liberation from colonial oppression,” Lavrov wrote in the article.
He added that the “development of a comprehensive partnership with African countries remains among the top priorities of Russia’s foreign policy.”
“We know that the African colleagues does not approve of the undisguised attempts of the U.S. and their European satellites to gain the upper hand, and to impose a unipolar world order to the international community,” Lavrov wrote.
“We appreciate the considered African position as to the situation in and around Ukraine.”
PEN America, a U.S.-based nonprofit human rights group, blasted Russia for its recent propaganda efforts in a statement last Monday. The statement came after Ukrainian journalist and human rights activist Maksym Butkevych was captured by Russian forces in June while fighting for Ukraine.
“False information contained in coverage of his capture and imprisonment reflects a Russian disinformation campaign attempting to undermine Butkevych and his work,” PEN America said.
“Russian propagandists have taken advantage of Butkevych’s capture to undermine his work. Propagandists have claimed that Butkevych is actually a fascist with strongly-held Nazi sympathies.”