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Why Putin Cannot Afford To Ignore The Missile Strikes On Sevastopol

“There is no doubt that the U.S. is involved in this ominous crime. A response to this crime will inevitably follow.” warned the Kremlin, with Russia's ambassador to the U.S describing it as a terrorist strike.
Russian Orthodox priest Mikhail Viktorov conducts a memorial service for civilians killed after a US-Made ATACMS loaded with a banned cluster munitions warhead detonated above a beach in Sevastopol, Crimea, June 24, 2024. (Alexey Pavlishak/REUTERS)

The use of US-made Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, with cluster warheads, against Sevastopol, Crimea on Sunday has led to a dangerous escalation of the Ukraine conflict, with Moscow directly accusing the US for the ‘terrorist’ strike, and pledging an ‘inevitable’ response.

According to the Kremlin, local air defences intercepted four of five incoming ATACMS ballistic missiles fired by Ukraine at Sevastopol on Sunday. One of the intercepted missiles was knocked off course, and detonated a warhead with cluster munitions above a beach, killing least five people including two children, and injuring over a 150, some critically.

More than a 100 countries, including the UK, France and Germany, have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions – an international treaty that outlaws the use of these weapons due to their indiscriminate effect on civilian populations. But that hasn’t stopped the Biden Administration in the U.S. from sending crateloads of them to Ukraine for use against Russia.

The waterfront, locally known as Utenovka Beach, “is less than half a kilometer from a major Russian ground forces troop and air defense base, and a little more than a kilometer from military wharves used by the warships of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet,” said the Kyiv Post on Monday.

This is not the first time that ATACMS’ has been used against Russian targets, although it is probably the first in which civilians were killed.

“The Ukrainian campaign to demolish Russian air defenses in Crimea has accelerated in recent weeks with missile strikes targeting S-400 and S-330 launchers taking place June 7, 10 and 12, following new deliveries of US-made ATACMS missiles,” said the Post

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“On May 24, a six-missile ATACMS raid hit the Russian Air Force’s main radar and air communications centre on the south Crimea shore, destroying it. A space observation facility at the site also was hit,” it said.

The Russians responded by deploying their most advanced air defence system, an experimental S-500 Prometheus, to Crimea. The Saturday-Sunday strikes marked the first time US ATACMS could be confirmed to have entered air space defended by a Russian S-500, the report said.

However, the loss of civilian lives on Sunday sparked massive outrage, with the Kremlin directly blaming the U.S. for the attack.

“Americans cannot sit overseas and escape responsibility for the blood and tears of innocent people,” Russia’s ambassador to Washington Anatoly Antonov told journalists on Monday.

Describing it as a “terrorist strike”, he said “cluster munitions in ATACMS missiles cannot be launched without the participation of American specialists and support from US intelligence. It is no coincidence that enemy drones are circling over the Black Sea almost every day.”

According to the Defence Ministry of Russia, “the attackers used US ATACMS operational missiles with cluster warheads for greater kill ability. All flight data was entered by US military crews based on US reconnaissance satellite inputs. A Global Hawk US reconnaissance drone was on duty off Crimea.

“The Investigative Committee of Russia has promptly started an investigation into this crime. All those implicated in this and other terrorist attacks in the territory of the Russian Federation will incur inevitable punishment,” it warned, adding: “There is no doubt that the United States is involved in this ominous crime. A response to this crime will inevitably follow.”

Sevastopol – the home of the Black Sea Fleet for more than 200 years – provides Russia with considerable geostrategic advantage.

Putin’s decision to annex Crimea, and more importantly, Sevastopol –in 2014 was due to fears that the pro-west government which came in after the Maidan ‘coup’ would hand the port to the US/NATO. He quickly turned into one of three federal cities of Russia, along with Moscow and Saint Petersburg, making it a completely separate entity from Crimea.

The latest attack on a heavily guarded port city, with immense emotional and historical significance for Russians, is a blow to his image which he cannot afford to ignore, say analysts.