Recent commentary on the Russo-Ukrainian war has been dominated by four questions.
First, when will the Ukrainian counter-offensive start? Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has urged patience, as he is waiting for more arms deliveries from the West. His recent visits to Italy, Germany, France and the UK have yielded some impressive promises of equipment and ammunition to come, while also suggesting that the Ukrainians are preparing for an offensive that may not be short and sharp but drawn out.
Second, when will the long battle for Bakhmut end? The Russians have ground their way towards their final takeover of the city, street by street. Exactly what the Wagner mercenaries will do with this utterly destroyed city is not clear, as Russian regular units have retreated to more defensible (“favourable”, they put it) positions and Ukrainian forces move along the flanks. Yevgeny Prigozhin raising the Wagner flag over the depopulated rubble of Bakhmut but with nowhere left to advance may not quite rank in historic significance alongside Napoleon and his army getting stranded in an empty and burnt out Moscow in 1812, but they both demonstrate how apparent military victories can turn out to be costly, pointless and eventually counter-productive.
Third, and related to that, what is Prigozhin up to? His bad-tempered video rants not only aggravate his disputes with the Russian Ministry of Defence about who is to blame for Russian failures in and around Bakhmut and the deaths of his soldiers but seem to get close to challenging Vladimir Putin. Is this purely a Prigozhin thing or does it speak to wider disputes among the Russian elite about the course of the war and the capacity of the leadership? Certainly not a good look in terms of unity of command.
The fourth question is, can Ukrainian air defences cope with Russian air power, including missile and drone strikes?
Zelensky’s top priorities in his quest for more weapons have been air defences and modern aircraft. This reflects his concern about the constant battering faced by Ukraine’s cities and the need to prevent disruption of the coming military operations through attacks on front-line forces and their supplies.
The structure of the problem has been reasonably stable since the first days of the invasion when the Russian Air Force (VKS) failed to destroy the Ukrainian air defence network or take out its air force. Russia has numerical superiority and a qualitative advantage in dog fights with Ukrainian aircraft. Ukraine’s aircraft are of Soviet vintage, as are the additional aircraft it is getting from Poland and Slovakia. This compares poorly with Ukraine’s access to some excellent, modern weaponry for land operations. It explains the constant push for F-16s. As with every step in the weapons supply process one suspects that eventually F-16s will reach Ukraine. The US does not now seem to oppose allies (most likely the Netherlands) providing the aircraft, but this will be months after first requested – and needed.
The VKS’s impact is limited by Ukrainian air defences. This has led to caution when it comes to providing close air support to ground forces. (On the VKS’s campaign to date see this by Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute.) It has had far less trouble using missiles and drones and aircraft to mount strikes against targets throughout Ukraine. This has not been done with sufficient consistency and effectiveness to make a fundamental difference to Ukraine’s strategic position, but it has undoubtedly caused real damage, pain and stress.
Until recently the focus of these strikes was critical infrastructure, with the special aim of disrupting electricity supplies. The failure of that campaign, and the imminent Ukrainian offensive, has led the VKS to shift its priorities to measures that might disrupt that offensive either by interfering with supplies or distracting the leadership.
The air force also been looking for ways to improve its capabilities. One weapon gaining prominence recently has been a medium-range glide-bomb, with wings and a navigation system to extend range and improve accuracy. These can be launched from aircraft 70 km away, out of range of air defences. They do not work well against targets on the move but can devastate more static positions. Some have been used in this role in Bakhmut, obliterating apartment blocks believed to be occupied by Ukrainian troops. In addition, while the Russians have been using up stocks of their accurate Iskander ground-launched ballistic missiles and Kalibr cruise missiles these are still being produced, and large numbers of the Shahed Kamikaze drone are arriving from Iran.
The specific rationale behind many of the more recent strikes is less clear. Some may just reflect a bullying mindset, for example the attack on the night of the Eurovision song contest when Ternopil, the hometown of Ukraine’s contestants, was bombed. Others have a more obvious purpose. On 13 May a video of a huge explosion near the city of Khmelnytskyi in western Ukraine went viral. Ukrainian sources acknowledged that some drones had got through and caused the explosion. They hinted that it might be serious, although they spoke only of “critical infrastructure”. The local mayor reported that “educational institutions, medical facilities, administrative buildings, industrial facilities, multi-story buildings, and private houses have been damaged”. This was largely because of the blast effects of the explosion.
Russia not only claimed the target to be an ammunition depot, containing vast stocks of recently-donated Western equipment, but also encouraged the view, soon disseminated by pro-Russian bloggers, that this included depleted uranium shells. When the UK announced that last March it would send depleted uranium shells with Challenger tanks, Putin said he would be “forced to react”. After the recent attack, one Twitter account (Russians with Attitude) used an almost classic formulation: “Hearing rumors that there was a big stockpile of depleted uranium ammunition in the warehouses that got blown up. Pretty big oof if true.”
This was followed by a claim that there had been a spike in local radiation levels, with warnings of birth defects and cancers to come.
What had actually happened? One explanation is that this was a Soviet-era ammunition dump, of little current value. Hence the huge explosion. This does not preclude the possibility that material required for the current war might also have been stored there. A similar storage site in eastern Ukraine had been struck just less than two weeks earlier. This was a known chemical plant at Pavlohrad, which had been involved in work on missiles and rockets but had also stored rocket motors from old ICBMs and also old mines. What is clearly not the case is that in the latest attack destruction of depleted uranium shells led to radiation being released. To the extent that these shells are a hazard it is because of their chemical toxicity rather than radiation. The “radioactive spike” that had supposedly resulted had appeared before the facility was attacked and was not even that high.
There was some excitement on 15 May with evidence of the vulnerability of Russian aircraft when at least two and possibly three Russian helicopters, along with one Su-34 bomber and one Su-35 fighter, were destroyed over the Bryansk region of Russia, about 30 miles from the border with Ukraine. All crew members were killed. This led to much speculation on how this was done – was this a catastrophic error by Russian air defences or some clever Ukrainian means of attacking close to the border using a vehicle mounted system? The Ukrainians insist that it was an own goal. It may therefore tell us something about the jumpiness of Russian defences but not much about the quality of Ukraine’s.
The leaked Pentagon documents of earlier this year highlighted the limitations of Ukrainian air defences, with reports that they would – around now – run out of missiles for their Soviet era systems (which have had a decent record against Russian cruise missiles). Certainly earlier this year they were struggling. On 9 March there was a large-scale attack against ten different Ukrainian cities, involving over 80 missiles, taking out infrastructure and causing casualties in what Zelensky described as a “difficult night”. This added to the urgency of his push for better defences.
Since then the situation has improved. In addition to German Iris-T batteries, reported to have a high interception rate, and the US Nasams (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System), a mobile system that can be used to protect high value assets, Ukraine received in April two batteries of the Patriot air defence system, one from the US and the other from Germany.
This was particularly important because there was one Russian missile for which Ukraine appeared to have no defence. The Kinzhal (“Dagger”), an air-launched ballistic missile, first attracted notice in March 2018 when Putin boasted about five new major nuclear-capable weapons programmes – his superoruzhie (“super weapons”). Four of these were long-range (more than 5,000km) systems. The Kinzhal, which entered service in 2017, has a shorter range. It is a modified version of the Iskander ground-launched ballistic missile, which has been a mainstay of Russian attacks. The Kinzhal is designed to be launched from an aircraft travelling at supersonic speed, boosting its own speed. Depending on the carrier, it has a range of up to 2,000km and can manoeuvre through its flight trajectory. Although it is regularly described in the media as “hypersonic”, it is not really different from most ballistic missiles that reach hypersonic speeds (above Mach 5) at some point during their flight. The combination of speed, erratic flight trajectory and high manoeuvrability does, however, mean that this is a missile that is supposed to be hard to intercept.
They were first used in the war against Ukraine in mid-March last year when a weapons depot in western Ukraine was struck, followed by fuel depot. The potential lethality of the weapon was underlined in a comment by the US president, Joe Biden, who observed that the Russians had used “their hypersonic missile because it’s the only thing they can get through with absolute certainty”, adding: “As you all know, it’s a consequential weapon but with the same warhead on it as any other launched missile. It doesn’t make that much difference except it’s almost impossible to stop it. There’s a reason they’re using it.”
While the Iskanders were used regularly in Russian strikes against Ukraine, Kinzhals were used sparingly. There was one attack in May 2022 in which three were sent against Odesa. One was reportedly used in a massive attack involving 55 missiles and 24 Shahed drones on 26 January this year, which was one of the most substantial in Russia’s campaign to shut down Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure. In the big attack on 9 March six Kinzhals were involved, none of which were intercepted. An air force spokesperson lamented that they “had no capabilities to counter these weapons”.
Patriot (Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target) first gained attention during the 1991 Gulf War when it was used, with modest success, against Iraqi Scud missiles. The image of effectiveness was enhanced by the Scud’s tendency to break up in mid-flight. Since then Patriot has been significantly upgraded. The system consists of a powerful radar, control station, power generator, launch stations and support vehicles. It can use three types of missiles, of which only one, the Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) could potentially take out the Kinzhal. Once it was in position the big issue was whether Ukrainian operators would be sufficiently familiar with the system to get the most out of it and cope with the Kinzhal.
The first test came in the early morning of 4 May when the Ukrainians claimed that a Kinzhal, fired from a MiG-31 fighter jet, over Kyiv was hit by the Patriot system it was intended to destroy. This was later confirmed by the Pentagon. This was followed by yet another major raid on 16 May against Kyiv, in which the Patriot system itself may have been one of the intended targets. This was a complex attack, designed to overwhelm Kyiv’s defences, with missiles coming in from a number of directions, launched from the sea and air, over a short period. In addition to six Kinzhals there were nine Kalibr cruise missiles from vessels in the Black Sea, three Iskanders, six Shahed drones and three Orlan drones. The head of the Kyiv military administration, Serhiy Popko, described the attack as “exceptional in its density – the maximum number of attacking missiles in the shortest period of time”. Ukraine’s military soon claimed complete success, with all 18 missiles destroyed. The only damage was the result of debris falling from the sky.
The Russians countered Ukrainian claims with one of their own, insisting that a Patriot system had been destroyed. Some pro-Russian bloggers (more evident on Twitter these days under its new management) claimed to have confirmed this, on the basis of video evidence of the early morning engagements. In practice, because of the dispersed nature of its constituent parts it was never likely that the Russians would have taken out a whole Patriot system. Later that evening, however, the claims appeared to have some support, with US media reports that an element of the system had been damaged, although it was unclear whether this might be relatively minor, capable of being patched up, or required an element to be replaced. The next day reassuring reports came in that the damage was indeed minor, the result of falling debris. US officials confirmed that the missile system remained operational.
This attack was followed by yet another on the morning of 18 May, although this one did not involve Kinzhals. Again the Ukrainians reported great success, with 29 of 30 missiles shot down, along with two Shahed drones and two reconnaissance drones, with again the main damage being done by falling debris. This led to one death in Odesa.
With Russia’s land offensive stalled, and its army getting into position to cope with anticipated Ukrainian attacks, attacks on towns and cities are now its main option when it comes to bringing the war to Ukraine.
It is important to note that these are encounters that are decided on fine margins. The ability of the Ukrainian defenders to deal with such intensive and complex attacks has been impressive, but it would only take one of the systems to malfunction at a critical moment or the defenders, despite their best efforts, to be unable to cope with the sheer number of incoming objects for the outcomes to look different.
It is also important to note that in addition to these long-range attacks, which get the headlines, artillery and air strikes are conducted constantly against towns and cities close to the front line, resulting in regular civilian damage and casualties. The Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Studies reports daily on these attacks. Thus the CDS reported for 18 May that the Myrivska community “sustained significant damage, including a multi-apartment building, 11 private estates, an outbuilding, an apiary, two vehicles, six gas pipelines, seven power lines, a post office, two cultural institutions, a kindergarten, a clinic, an agricultural enterprise, and a store”.
In the Donetsk Oblast at least 19 towns and villages were affected by shelling, in which S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, BM-30 Grad multiple rocket launchers and artillery were used. “Twenty residential buildings, a company building, a cultural palace, radar equipment, two railway tracks, a garage, two utility structures, a railway crossing building, two power transmission lines, a transformer substation, two gas pipelines, and two workshops of the railway depot of Ukrzaliznytsia were damaged.”
And so on.
As Tim Snyder has noted in a powerful piece, commenting on the recent attacks: “It is an outrage among other outrages, a terror attack among other terror attacks. In this awful war, Russia claims the right to terrorise the Ukrainian population. It attacks Kyiv and other cities not because it seeks to destroy military targets, but because it wishes to kill and injure civilians, or to destroy infrastructure so that civilians freeze and starve.”
Some military logic can be found. Even if the missiles are shot down then the Ukrainians have still used up precious air defence resources in the effort, and these may then not be available to support front-line forces. But the aim is still to hurt and to punish and, when lucky, to interfere with plans for the Ukrainian offensive.
While many of the new commitments acquired by Zelensky during his recent trip to Europe are geared to supporting land operations, there were also promises of more air defence missiles from the UK and crucially a promise from Germany of more Iris-T air defence systems.
The sheer size of the new German package ($2.7bn) compared with its lacklustre efforts last year is remarkable, demonstrating that fears of “Ukraine fatigue” have thus far been misplaced. Many other countries are contributing air defence systems, among other equipment. Latvia is handing over its entire stock of Stinger man-portable air defence systems (Manpads). But this could be a long haul and there are worries about the ability of Ukraine’s supporters to find the extra systems and ammunition to help it get and retain the initiative in the months ahead.
For now, Ukraine has improved capability of striking Russian targets well to the rear of the front lines, with the UK Storm Shadow cruise missiles and at some point the French equivalent (Scalp-EG). It has shown remarkable ingenuity in developing its own drones, and its special forces may be working with partisans causing disruption in occupied areas. So Ukraine is not without a means of response. It does not however have to match the cruelty and destructiveness of the Russian campaign. Its best answer is to use these developing capabilities to degrade Russian military capabilities and, with its land forces, to push the Russian forces back as far as possible.
[See also: Putin on trial]
Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.