Ukraine promised Sunday "reprisals" after the Russian strikes on Odessa, which killed two people and destroyed a historic cathedral, while Vladimir Putin affirmed that the Ukrainian counter-offensive launched in early June had "failed".
"There is no counter-offensive," said Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, Russia's leading ally in the conflict in Ukraine, whom his Russian counterpart receives in Saint Petersburg, in the north-west of Russia.
Mr Putin then interrupted him and said: 'There is one but it failed'.
Regularly targeted by Russian strikes, Odessa, on the Black Sea, whose historic center was listed earlier this year by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, was the target of a new night attack which left two dead and 22 injured, including at least four children, according to the Ukrainian authorities.
Inside the largely destroyed Transfiguration Cathedral, debris lies on the ground as residents attempt to clear the area.
Collapsed walls, burnt icons, rattling chandeliers: this splendid building over 200 years old is devastated. "All the decorations are practically destroyed. Only the bell tower is intact," laments Father Myroslav, the cathedral's deputy rector.
"There will definitely be reprisals," promised President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In Paris, where its headquarters are, Unesco condemned "with the greatest firmness" the "brutal strikes carried out by Russian forces".
"These terrible destructions mark a new escalation of violence against the cultural heritage of Ukraine", denounced the director general of Unesco, Audrey Azoulay.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry denounced "a war crime that will never be forgotten or forgiven".
Oleksiï, a resident of Odessa, said he had "the windows of his room shattered" by one of the shots. "The kitchen has a hole in the roof," he told AFP.
The strikes came shortly after Moscow announced it had carried out military maneuvers in the Black Sea, where tensions have risen since the expiration of a deal that allowed Ukrainian grain exports.
Odessa, in southern Ukraine, is a strategic port for maritime transit in the region and has suffered numerous night attacks over the past week.
Twenty-five monuments were damaged in Sunday's strikes, according to regional governor Oleg Kiper, who accused the Russian military of having "deliberately aimed its missiles at the historic center of Odessa".
In a letter to Russian Patriarch Kirill posted on social media, Archbishop Viktor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's Odessa Diocese called on Sunday to "stop the bloodshed!"
Before launching: "Your bishops and priests consecrate and bless the tanks and the rockets which bombard our peaceful cities".
The Russian army claims to target only military sites. On Sunday, she claimed to have bombed places where “terrorist acts against Russia using naval drones were in preparation”.
According to the spokeswoman for Russian diplomacy, Maria Zakharova, the destruction inflicted on the Cathedral of the Transfiguration "is also on the conscience" of Kiev which, according to her, places its air defense systems in residential areas.
Walkabout for Putin and Lukashenko
Regarding the Wagner group, the Belarusian president assured Mr. Putin on Sunday that he was "keeping" it in central Belarus, a few weeks after the arrival in this country of several of his fighters.
"They are asking to go west (...) to Warsaw, Rzeszów", exclaimed Mr. Lukashenko in the presence of the Russian president, who sketched a slight smile. "But, of course, that I keep them in the center of Belarus, as we had agreed", he added, saying however that he had noted "their bad mood".
The Belarusian leader, presented as having been the mediator between the Kremlin and Yevgeny Prigojine at the time of Wagner's abortive rebellion at the end of June, then appeared alongside Vladimir Putin during a rare walkabout for the two leaders, in Kronstadt, near Saint Petersburg. The two men posed with visibly enthusiastic onlookers.
This scene, which AFP could not verify the degree of spontaneity, comes at a time when the Russian authorities have been trying to show since the aborted rebellion of Wagner that Vladimir Putin still enjoys the support of the population and the army.
Alexander Lukashenko also accused Warsaw of wanting to "transfer territories" from western Ukraine to Poland.
The head of Ukrainian diplomacy, Dmytro Kouleba, denounced "futile attempts" aimed at "digging a gap between kyiv and Warsaw".
"Unlike Russia, Poland and Ukraine have learned (the lesson, editor's note) from history and will always remain united against Russian imperialism and the disrespect of international law", assured the Ukrainian minister on Twitter.
The Editorial Board (with AFP)