Key developments on Dec. 26:
- Russia confirms its landing ship hit by Ukrainian missile strike in occupied Crimea
- Russian attack on Kherson railway station kills 1, injures 4
- Zaluzhnyi denies requesting mobilization of 500,000 conscripts
- Zaluzhnyi says Ukrainian troops remain in north of Marinka.
Russia's Defense Ministry confirmed that the Russian landing ship Novocherkassk, docked at Feodosia in occupied Crimea, had been "damaged" by a Ukrainian missile strike in the early hours of Dec. 26, in a statement reported by the Russian state-run media outlet TASS.
Ukrainian Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk announced that the ship had been struck earlier on Dec. 26, but implied it was destroyed, not damaged, which appears to be backed by the videos from the scene.
"And the fleet of Russia is getting smaller and smaller," he said. "This time, the large landing ship Novocherkassk...Thanks to the Air Force pilots and everyone involved!"
Oleschchuk also shared a video of a large explosion, implied to be related to the strike on the Novocherkassk.
Two Russian vessels had left Feodosia a few hours after Ukrainian forces struck the port in Crimea, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Crimea.Realities reported.
Crimea.Realities said that it was impossible to identify the two vessels due to the distance and the smoke, but judging by their size, they resembled a warship and a military boat of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
At least two officers may have been in the landing ship Novocherkassk at the time of the attack, according to independent Russian news site Agentstvo. It reported that Nikolay Stepanenko, commander of the ship, claimed to Agentstvo that there were no casualties.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Yurii Ihnat said to RFE/RL that the ship had been struck by more than one cruise missile. He noted that Ukraine possesses both Storm Shadow and Scalp missiles provided by the U.K. and France, which have the capability of striking occupied Crimea. Storm Shadow missiles were reportedly used in an attack in September on the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
Ihnat added that the size of the explosion indicated that something significant had exploded due to the strikes, likely ammunition.
U.K. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps weighed in on the news, saying, "This latest destruction of (Russian leader Vladimir) Putin's navy demonstrates that those who believe there's a stalemate in the Ukraine war are wrong! They haven't noticed that over the past four months, 20% of Russia's Black Sea Fleet has been destroyed."
At around 3 a.m. local time, Crimean Telegram channels reported explosions in the area of Feodosia in eastern Crimea. The Telegram channels claimed that a ship with Iranian ammunition was reportedly blown up and a fire broke out in the port.
According to Russian-affiliated media, residents reported hearing loud bangs, and seeing plumes of smoke, and traffic on the Crimean bridge was blocked.
Sergey Aksyonov, the head of Russian occupation authorities in Crimea, said that one person had been killed in the attack, and two others were injured. Several nearby buildings were also damaged. Russian media reported that Putin was informed of the "damage" to the ship.
Russian proxy authorities later revised the number of injured to four.
The Novocherkassk is a mid-size vessel with a length of almost 113 meters, designed for amphibious landings, that can carry armored vehicles, according to a U.S. military factsheet cited by CNN. It has a crew of 87 and can host almost 240 personnel.
Ukraine's General Staff said the ship had previously been damaged by a strike near the Ukrainian port city of Berdiansk in March 2022.
Ukraine has repeatedly struck Russia's Black Sea fleet since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, including the sinking of the flagship cruiser Moskva in April 2022 and a devastating missile attack on the fleet's headquarters in occupied Crimea that reportedly killed more than 30 officers.
U.K. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said in October that Ukraine's successful attacks had led to a "functional defeat" of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea.
President Volodymyr Zelensky predicted in October that Ukraine would soon have full fire control over occupied Crimea, citing the widespread failure of Russian air defenses in the peninsula.
He also noted that Russia's Black Sea Fleet has suffered such significant losses that a new naval base is planned to open in Abkhazia, a Russian-occupied region of Georgia located on the Black Sea, in order to move ships "as far as possible from Ukrainian missiles and naval drones."
In the report confirming the damage to the Novocherkassk, the Russian Defense Ministry also claimed that two Ukrainian SU-24 fighter jets were shot down 125 kilometers northeast of Mykolaiv. There was no evidence provided to support the assertion.
In comments to RFE/RL, Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Yurii Ihnat denied that the fighter jets were shot down.
Russian attack on Kherson railway station kills 1, injures 4
Russian forces attacked a railway station full of people in Kherson late on Dec. 26, killing at least one person and wounding four others, Ukrainian officials said.
Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko reported that about 140 people were waiting for an evacuation train from heavily shelled Kherson. A police lieutenant evacuating civilians from the attack site was killed, and two more police officers and two civilians were wounded by shrapnel, he added.
Since Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson and swathes of territories on the western bank of the Dnipro River in November 2022, Russia continues to heavily strike the city with artillery, tanks, drones, and air bombs.
Ukrainian railway monopoly Ukrzaliznytsia said that the civilians are waiting for the situation to stabilize before being evacuated on buses to Mykolaiv in the neighboring Mykolaiv Oblast.
"The situation is under control, and the railroad is ready to continue running," Ukrzaliznytsia said in a Telegram statement.
According to media reports, Russian forces had been attacking the Kherson area for a few hours late on Dec. 26. Kherson Oblast Governor Oleksandr Prokudin earlier reported a civilian death at around noon in the village of Mykilske – about 20 kilometers northeast of the regional capital.
Since liberation, over 400 civilians were killed and over 1,700 wounded in and around Kherson, according to local authorities.
Zaluzhnyi denies requesting mobilization of 500,000 conscripts
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi said on Dec. 26 that the military had not submitted a formal request for the mobilization of 500,000 people.
On Dec. 25, David Arakhamia, head of President Volodymyr Zelensky's Servant of the People faction in parliament, said that the military command had submitted a request to the government to mobilize 500,000 conscripts.
Meanwhile, Zaluzhnyi also said that the military had a plan on the number of mobilized conscripts for 2024.
“As for this number, we have generated it for the next year, it of course takes into account the coverage of the current kit, the formation of new military units, and also the projection of our losses that we may suffer in 2024. I can't divulge the numbers for each of these indicators. This is a military secret,” he said at a news briefing.
Speaking about the Cabinet's draft law regarding amendments to the mobilization process, Zaluzhnyi said that he is not involved in the decisions of who can be deferred from recruitment.
“There are central executive authorities for that which can determine it,” he said.
He stressed that two concepts will be left in the legislation: someone who is fit for military service and someone who is not, instead of having the middle point “partially fit,” which includes people with certain types of disabilities.
Zaluzhnyi called for stopping the use of disability categories for mobilization and conscription. He said that medical commissions should determine whether someone is fit for service regardless of official disability categories.
Zaluzhnyi also welcomed the idea of electronic summonses for conscripts, which Defense Minister Rustem Umerov proposed last week.
“We are happy with any way that will meet our demand for personnel,” he said.
The draft law also proposes the rotation of military personnel on the front line every six months.
But Zaluzhnyi opposed the idea as the situation on the front remains unpredictable and would require double the necessary amount of ammunition.
“I cannot predict whether it will be six months, five months, three months. The situation can be completely different,” he said. “If people propose a six-month rotation, they should understand that the amount of ammunition needs to be at least doubled.”
The Cabinet bill also envisages discharging mobilized conscripts after 36 months of service unless they want to continue serving voluntarily.
The commander-in-chief said that the military had agreed to the 36-month limit only if there are no escalations on the front and if there are people who can replace the demobilized conscripts.
Zaluzhnyi also said he was unhappy with the work of military enlistment offices.
"As far as military enlistment offices are concerned, frankly speaking, I'm not satisfied with their work yet," he said.
Speaking about what the war will look like in 2024, Zaluzhnyi said that it would be very different from 2023.
"In the 21st century, the development of science, weapons, and military equipment will undoubtedly lead to changes in tactics," he said.
He said that the war in 2024 "must differ" from 2023 because otherwise "we can expect what I wrote about in the article (for The Economist) to happen."
Zaluzhnyi was referring to his November article in the Economist in which he said the conflict was turning into a war of attrition and the only way to win it was through high technology.
"For about 90% of (the problems of the war) we have found solutions that will help us act more efficiently, and more importantly, save the lives of our people," he said on Dec. 26.
He added that "our enemy is not far behind us, you can see what is going on in the last days especially, that there is a pretty intense competition in terms of the use of technology, but we are not letting up in this effort."
Zaluzhnyi says Ukrainian troops remain in north of Marinka
Ukraine’s Commander in Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi said on Dec. 26 that Ukrainian troops remain in the northern part of the town of Marinka, Donetsk Oblast.
Following Russia's claim to have captured the town on Dec. 25, Zaluzhnyi said that Ukrainian troops were forced to retreat to Marinka’s outskirts and in some places set up positions outside the city.
He stressed that the lives of soldiers are more important than land as the battle becomes increasingly bloody.
"The situation is absolutely the same as it was in Bakhmut," he said at a news briefing. "Streets, neighborhoods, and our fighters are being destroyed, and after that, we have what we have."
Marinka has suffered fighting for nearly two years and is completely destroyed.
The town’s potential fall would be the first major military success for Russia since it captured Bakhmut in May following months of intense fighting.
Zaluzhnyi said that the only way to stop Russia is to inflict more casualties, even though the Kremlin pays little attention to the injured and killed Russian soldiers.
"There are mountains of bodies, and no one is even trying to take them away. More and more of them are appearing there every day. Unfortunately, this is Russia's attitude towards its own people," he said.