Russia’s Moskva cruiser was hit by two Ukrainian missiles before it sank, a senior US official said on Friday as Russia threatened to increase the scale of its own strikes against Kyiv following the loss of the vessel.

The official said the US now believes that the Moskva, which sank on Thursday, had been hit by Neptune missiles fired by Ukrainian forces, backing Kyiv’s account of what happened to Russia’s Black Sea flagship. There were believed to be an unknown number of casualties, the official said.

The Pentagon assessment came a day after Russia admitted it had lost the Moskva — arguably the biggest setback of its sputtering 50-day campaign — as it prepares for a renewed offensive in south-east Ukraine.

Russia had said the Moskva had sunk during a storm after a fire on board set off its ammunition stores. It has not acknowledged that Ukraine hit the ship and claims it successfully evacuated the entire crew.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s ministry of internal affairs, said in a post on his Telegram channel on Friday that the Moskva’s commander, Anton Kuprin, had been killed in an explosion and fire on board. The information could not be verified.

Earlier Igor Konashenkov, Russia’s defence ministry spokesman, said Russia would intensify its attacks on targets in Kyiv in response to any further attempts by Ukrainian forces to carry out “sabotage” on Russian soil. Overnight, air-alert sirens sounded in cities around Ukraine and loud booms resounded in Kyiv.

Diplomatic tension flared between the Kremlin and the EU as Russia said it was expelling 18 diplomats from Brussels’ delegation in Moscow. Russia said the expulsions were a response to “unfriendly” EU actions. The EU said it deplored the move, a tit-for-tat response to Brussels ejecting a similar number of Russian diplomats earlier this month.

The Moskva’s sinking was met with jubilation in Ukraine. Resistance to the ship became an early symbol of the fight against Russia when Ukrainian troops, ordered by the Moskva to surrender, responded by saying: “Russian military vessel, go fuck yourself.”

Oleksiy Reznikov, minister of defence, posted on Twitter a picture of himself scuba diving and said: “A ‘flagship’ Russian warship is a worthy diving site. We have one more diving spot in the Black Sea now. Will definitely visit the wreck after our victory in the war.”

Russia framed its strikes as a response to what it claims is a series of increasingly daring Ukrainian raids behind Russian lines, including an apparent attack on a railway bridge on a resupply route near Belgorod.

On Friday, Russia said it had destroyed one of several helicopters it said were attacking a village in Bryansk, another border region, where investigators claimed two residential buildings were destroyed and eight people injured.

Ukraine has not taken responsibility for the attacks, which some analysts say President Vladimir Putin could use as a pretext for broadening the invasion.

Ukraine’s military said Russia was gathering its forces for an assault on the east. “The enemy continues to focus its efforts on preparations for an offensive operation on eastern Ukraine and taking over the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and creation of a so-called ground corridor with . . . Crimea,” Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a defence ministry spokesman, said in a press briefing on Friday.

He added that the Russian military continued to use rockets to hit Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, and that on Thursday two strategic bombers from airspace over Krasnodar in southern Russia launched cruise missiles into Ukrainian territory.

Motuzyanyk also said that for the first time since the war began, Russia had used long-range Tupolev 2 and Tupolev 3 bombers in the besieged city of Mariupol.

The Kremlin’s justifications and goals for the war are shifting as Russia regroups for an attempt to seize the eastern Donbas border region.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Friday that “the most important thing is to free [Ukraine] from these nationalist battalions” — marginal far-right groups that Russia falsely claims have seized control of Ukraine’s government.

“The operation is continuing and the tasks at hand are well known. They must and will be completed. There should not be any doubts,” Peskov said, according to Interfax.

Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military in the south, said on Friday that Mykolaiv, a strategic city under Ukrainian control, was being shelled in what she claimed was retaliation for the Moskva’s sinking.

“The situation in the south of Ukraine is indeed tense,” Humeniuk said in a press briefing. “Stable but tense.” 

“When the Moscow cruiser was hit, it affected not only the ships, it affected Russia’s imperial ambitions. And we, of course, understand that they will not forget. They will not forgive,” Humeniuk said.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels

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