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The Kremenchuk missile strike: what the evidence shows Meduza evaluates the Kremlin's claims in the wake of Russia's airstrike on a crowded mall

Source: Meduza
Oleg Petrasyuk / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

On Monday, June 27, a Russian airstrike on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, a city in Ukraine’s Poltava region, killed at least 20 civilians; dozens more are still unaccounted for. Kyiv called the strike a terrorist act and an “intentional attack on a civilian target.” Russian officials initially claimed the attack was a “Bucha-style false flag,” but the Russian Defense Ministry soon acknowledged that a strike had indeed occurred. In Russia’s telling, however, a strike “on a foreign munitions warehouse” caused some of the weapons stored there to detonate, damaging a nearby defunct shopping mall. Meduza explains the holes in Russia’s story.

At around 4:00 pm on June 27, there was a powerful explosion in the center of Kremenchuk, and almost ten seconds later, there was another. At the same time, the Amstor shopping mall caught on fire. Within several hours, it had burned to the ground.

The city authorities reported that evening that 19 bodies had been found at the fire scene and that another person had died in the hospital. About 40 other people who had been in the mall were now missing. Over 50 people had injuries, most of which were burns.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry reported that the strikes were carried out by Kh-22 missiles launched from Tu-22 bombers that had taken off from the Shaykovka air base in Russia’s Kaluga region.

The Kremenchuk authorities later showed journalists a giant crater and a destroyed production facility at a road machinery plant close to the Amstor mall. The hole is about a third of a mile from the shopping center, which would seem to confirm the Russian Defense Ministry’s version of events; according to the Ministry, they had launched a strike on the plant because Ukraine had been storing weapons there, and that some of the weapons had detonated, setting the mall nearby on fire. But that story is false.

The problems with Russia's claims

  • First of all, the mall that the Russian authorities claim was “defunct” was, in fact, fully operational: this video shows the mall on June 25, just two days before the attack. Additionally, a message from June 23 shows one of the mall’s owners asking for customers and store employees not to be evacuated every time air raid sirens go off (which happens regularly there; the Ukrainian authorities have vowed to investigate the mall administration’s instructions).
  • Secondly, the mall was hit by a different explosion — not the one that caused the crater at the road machinery plant.
  • Thirdly, the order of events was the opposite of what Russia claimed: the explosion at the mall (which appears to have caused the fire) occurred ten seconds before the explosion at the plant. According to Google Maps, at the explosion site near the mall, there are and were no hangars or warehouses where weapons could have been stored, as the Russian Defense Ministry has claimed.

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The basis of Russia’s story

On June 28, several videos from surveillance cameras in a Kremenchuk city park were posted online. The park is located directly behind the road machinery plant, halfway between the plant and the Amstor mall. At the start of the video, the people and the birds at the park are visibly alarmed, presumably by a distant explosion; ten seconds later, a second explosion can be seen — this one much closer.

Based on the layout of the things seen in the videos, it’s clear that the second explosion was the one at the road machinery plant. It’s not possible to determine the epicenter of the first explosion based on the footage, but in one of the videos, a heavy column of smoke can be seen rising behind the plant from the approximate location of the mall.

In addition, Meduza has obtained photos taken on the day of the attack from a higher elevation about two miles from the Amstor mall. The person who sent the photos asked Meduza not only not to use his name, but also not to publish the photos themselves, as they could be used to determine where he lives, and publishing images of possible military targets can bring criminal charges in Ukraine. Meduza was unable to confirm his claims regarding the photos’ origin, but also found no evidence to suggest the photos had been forged.

The photos show two explosions of similar size; the smoke in the upper part of the mushroom cloud over one of them has already begun to dissipate, suggesting that that one occurred slightly earlier. Meduza has geolocated the location where the photo was taken, as well as the approximate locations of the explosions: the first explosion (whose smoke had begun to dissipate) happened at or near the mall, while the second happened at or near the road machinery plant.

The photos (which appear to have been taken consecutively over roughly a half-hour period) don’t show any signs of secondary munitions detonations (such as what happened, for example, in March 2022 after a missile strike on Kyiv’s Retroville mall, where the Ukrainian military was hiding artillery and shells). The smoke from the explosions simply continues to dissipate, and the fire can be seen breaking out at the mall.

By comparing satellite images from April and from June 28, it’s possible to determine where exactly the missile landed near the Amstor mall. In addition to the destruction at the mall, the June images show what is presumably the crater left by the missile; it’s right next to the single-track railway that divides the mall from the plant. The likely impact site is about a hundred feet from the mall — specifically from a store called Comfy, which had more victims and missing persons after the strike than any other store, according to mall employees, because the store caught on fire immediately after the explosion. Security camera footage showing the missile strike confirms the location (the coordinates can be seen here).

Anton Gerashchenko

Based on this evidence, we can safely conclude that the first missile detonated in the immediate vicinity of Amstor, and that the second missile hit the production facility at the road machinery plant. The evidence also suggests that there was no “detonation of munitions,” which the Russian Defense Ministry claims was the cause of the fire at the Amstor mall (at the very least, in the days since the explosion, no evidence has appeared to suggest that any munitions were detonated).

That leaves one question: was there ammunition or any other military equipment at the plant? So far, the Russian Defense Ministry has made this claim without presenting any evidence. The Ukrainian authorities and the plant’s management have denied it, and none of the journalists reporting at the scene have found any sign of munitions at the plant.

Why it’s unlikely that Russia ‘intentionally’ hit the mall

Judging by the evidence at the strike site, it’s difficult to conclude that Russia’s airstrike was a “deliberate attack” on the Amstor mall. The missile didn’t hit the mall directly. Its most crowded section, the Silpo supermarket, suffered almost no damage in the initial minutes after the attack, according to mall employees (but it was later destroyed in the fire). Technically, while one of the missiles landed in the immediate vicinity of the mall, both of them landed on the territory of the nearby road machinery plant. It stands to reason that the plant was the target of both strikes.

The rest can be explained by the particular features of the missiles used to carry out the strikes (based on the Ukrainian authorities’ reports that they were Kh-22s). These missiles were developed in the 1960s (and modernized in the 1970s) and intended not for precise strikes on ground targets but for attacks on large groups of NATO ships and aircraft carriers.

The missiles have two possible guidance systems:

  • After being modernized, the Kh-22 was guided by an inertial system for most of its flight: first, the exact position of its host aircraft (the reference point in the coordinate system) was determined at launch, and then a special system calculated all of the changes in the missile’s position from the time it left its reference point, including its altitude, course, and wind drift. Errors, however, are inevitable, and with this system alone, the missile would be unable to hit even a large ship. The circular error probable (CEP) of an Kh-22 using only an inertial system is about 500 meters (1,640 feet).
  • For a Kh-22 to be able to hit an aircraft carrier (once already close to it), it was initially equipped with a homing head with a radar guide, which would guide the missile to the ship it detected most strongly. Due to the low accuracy of inertial guiding systems in the late USSR, the missile was supposed to use only nuclear ammunition with one megaton capacity when attacking groups of ships.
  • It’s logical, then, that the Kh-22’s radar system would not work for an attack on a specific land target such as a plant, and that the missile is therefore used only for to attack “area targets,” though with high-explosive warheads. The large (about 900 kg, or approximately 1 ton) warheads allow the missiles to hit targets despite their low accuracy.
  • The main advantage of the Kh-22 compared to other types of missiles is that Russia has a lot of them. After Ukraine decided to give up all of its nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying them, it handed almost 400 Kh-22s over to Russia. It’s unclear how many Russia has left (some have been destroyed), but they’re likely to appear in larger numbers as Russia starts running low on more modern missiles.

Is it permissible in a war to use such imprecise, powerful missiles to attack an urban target?

No. This attack has all the hallmarks of a war crime — one of many committed by Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine.

The shelling of the mall in Kremenchuk shows that when Russia’s military commanders are planning a strike, they prioritize effectiveness and cost above all else — including civilian lives.

Explainer by Meduza

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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