Russia says repels Ukrainian attack on border
Putin gifts historic treasures to church amid Ukraine campaign
June 2, 2023 11:46 AM
Moscow said Thursday it thwarted a Ukrainian attempt to penetrate its southwestern border as it pounded Kyiv with missiles, killing three including a child.
The Ukrainian capital faced nearly nightly air raids throughout last month.
As Kyiv deployed its air defences against a fresh volley of Russian missiles, Moscow said it pushed back an attempt by Ukrainian troops to invade its southwestern Belgorod region at about 3:00 am (0000 GMT).
"Overall, the attack involved up to 70 militants, five tanks, four armoured vehicles, seven pickup trucks and a Kamaz truck," the Russian defence ministry said in the evening, reporting at least three attempted crossings.
It said it used the air force and artillery to repel the attacks, killing more than 50 Ukrainian fighters.
The Belgorod region, which saw an unprecedented two-day armed incursion last week, has come under intensified fire in recent days.
Regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said 12 people had been wounded in the previous 24 hours in the district of Shebekino, whose residents poured into centres for displaced people in Belgorod city.
"There are many families with children, including infants and disabled people. We will try to provide them with as much care as possible," Belgorod mayor Valentin Demidov said.
Two people were wounded in the city when a drone crashed near a petrol station, Demidov said.
- 'Not a single word' -
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin was being constantly informed of the situation.
"The main question now is to provide assistance to people and support resettlement for those who need it," he added.
Peskov also denounced the silence from the international community over the strikes.
Despite "every opportunity to see the footage describing strikes on residential buildings, social infrastructure... there is not a single word criticising Kyiv", Peskov said.
Russia has seen repeated attacks on its soil, with a drone attack in Moscow last week.
After at least eight drones were used in that attack, the Russian foreign ministry accused the West of "pushing the Ukrainian leadership towards increasingly reckless acts".
Ukraine has denied "direct involvement".
Separately, Russia's air defences shot down several Ukrainian drones near the city of Kursk, the regional governor said early Friday.
"We ask the residents of Kursk to remain calm, the city is under the reliable protection of our army," Roman Starovoyt said on Telegram.
The wider Kursk region, which like Belgorod borders Ukraine, has been regularly bombarded by Kyiv's forces since the conflict broke out.
- 'Screams and dust' -
Moscow's latest attack on Kyiv began just before 3:00 am local time when missiles were fired from Russia's Bryansk region.
Ukraine's air force said it intercepted and destroyed all 10 missiles.
Three people, including a nine-year-old child, were killed in Kyiv's northeastern Desnyanskyi district as a result of falling rocket fragments. Another 16 people were wounded.
The husband of one of the victims, Yaroslav Ryabchuk, said the shelter where they routinely hid from Russian strikes was closed on Thursday, and he ran to seek help.
"When I came back, there was a lot of blood, children and women were lying there. There were screams and dust," he told AFP.
"Nothing matters any more," he said, adding his children have been "left without a mother".
Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko confirmed the three people were killed when a fragment of a rocket fell close to a clinic as they ran for cover after an air raid alert.
"A closed shelter in wartime is not just indifference, it is a crime," said Interior Minister Igor Klymenko, adding that an investigation had been opened.
In a press conference in Moldova, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said people would be "held responsible" for the closed shelter.
Moscow says it only targets military installations in Ukraine.
Klitschko later reported another wave of drone attacks on the capital overnight Thursday into Friday, though there were no casualties.
The armed forces posted on Facebook that: "This night, the enemy used 15 cruise missiles (type to be specified) and 18 Iranian 'Shahed' attack UAVs for strikes."
"All these air targets were destroyed by our defenders," it added.
- Grain export slowdown -
Meanwhile, the UN secretary-general's office on Thursday expressed concern over a drop in Ukrainian grain exports across the Black Sea, citing the "specter of food inflation".
A crucial agreement allowing the grain to reach the global market was renewed again in May but for only two months.
"We are concerned about the continuous slowdown of the implementation of the Black Sea Initiative," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
"In May, 33 vessels departed Ukrainian ports, half of the number compared to April."
He linked part of the slowdown to Russian demands that its own exports of fertiliser components be freed up despite strict sanctions.
Putin gifts historic treasures to church
For nearly a century, visitors came to Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery to admire the perfect harmony of Russia's most famous icon: the "Trinity", painted by Andrei Rublev in the Middle Ages.
The almost 600-year-old artwork depicting three angels is one of the most recognisable Russian masterpieces in the world.
Last month, however, President Vladimir Putin handed over the historic icon to the Russian Orthodox Church, the latest sign of the tightening alliance between the Kremlin and religious leaders.
The handover has sparked an outcry from restorers and art historians, who warn the extremely fragile mediaeval icon might not survive outside the Tretyakov Gallery's walls.
It comes as Russia's offensive in Ukraine stretches into its second year, with Patriarch Kirill throwing his support behind the assault and saying that dying in Ukraine "washes away all sins".
Lev Lifshits, one of the country's leading art historians, warned that the "Trinity" could be destroyed and said he believed the decision to give it to the church was political.
He compared its state to an ailing person.
"If you suddenly take a critically ill person out of an intensive care unit, what do you think would happen?"
Some political observers say Putin's move is a spiritual decision dictated by the difficult situation on the front line in Ukraine.
"Still no victory," said political analyst Georgy Bovt. "All that remains is for Putin to ask God for help."
With Moscow's military campaign in Ukraine stalling, Russian authorities have been increasingly willing to depict the offensive in religious terms.
The masterpiece was painted for what is now the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius located in the town of Sergiyev Posad outside Moscow.
After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet authorities transferred the artwork to the Tretyakov Gallery in 1929.
The church said the icon would be first exhibited at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow before returning to the historic monastery in Sergiyev Posad. Religious leaders insist they have every means at their disposal to preserve the precious icon.
It is the second transfer of a national treasure to the church in recent weeks.
The Saint Petersburg-based Hermitage Museum said another Russian monastery would receive the silver sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky, a medieval prince and national hero.
Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who has lauded the Ukraine offensive, said it was the right move "at this geopolitical time".
"Today, the sacred signficance of the monument is more important than its artistic value," he told reporters.
- 'Helped Russian princes' -
In a sign the church will not tolerate dissent, Patriarch Kirill has fired and banned from the priesthood a cleric heading the Moscow Patriarchate's expert council on church art, who said that the safety of the icon was paramount.
Speaking to AFP before his dismissal, Archpriest Leonid Kalinin said the icon's "rightful place is where it was painted to be".
Standing in an ornate Moscow church, the cleric welcomed the fact that Putin, a former KGB spy, "turns to shrines in difficult and fateful moments".
By giving the icon back to the church, Putin wants to "return Russia to its core", he added.
Putin has sought to depict the offensive in Ukraine as a battle against the decadent West, and used religious symbols to rouse support.
The Kremlin said that during a rare visit to occupied southern Ukraine in April, the Russian president gave troops a copy of a historic icon.
Art historian Lifshits said the "Trinity" had helped Russian rulers in difficult times.
"Contemplating Rublev's 'Trinity' helped Russian princes overcome feuds," he said.
Popular legend has it that Joseph Stalin, the ruthless dictator of the atheist Soviet Union, also sought divine help in the country's epic battle against Nazi Germany.
According to one popular myth, in a bid to save Moscow from approaching German troops in 1941, a plane carrying an icon flew over the Russian capital. Two years later Stalin met religious leaders and blessed cooperation between the church and the Soviet government.
- 'Unjustified risks' -
Rublev's most famous work has left the Tretyakov Gallery only a handful of times, including during World War II when it was evacuated to safety.
In 2022, the icon travelled back to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius for religious celebrations.
Art experts said the piece suffered significant damage when it was temporarily moved.
Lilia Yevseyeva, an art historian at the Museum of Russian Icons in Moscow, said that, if the icon leaves the Tretyakov Gallery for good, "future generations will not see it in its current state".
Following the public outcry, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the icon would be exhibited at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, where experts will decide on its future restoration.
Art experts are adamant the piece should not leave the museum.
Even members of the Russian Academy of Sciences broke their silence, saying the icon cannot be moved, "even for a short period of time".
In an open letter to the culture minister they said only a museum could ensure the preservation of Rublev's "Trinity".
"Masterpieces of Russian icon painting and national treasures should not be exposed to unjustified risks," the letter warned.