The deep subway tunnels of the Lukyanivska metro station in central Kyiv make an ideal air raid shelter — which is just as well as the station lies across the street from the Artem weapons factory and was damaged when Russia targeted the area in one of its biggest air strikes of the war.
Ukraine has had a tough start to 2024. The country is exhausted after two years of fighting, the temperature in Kyiv has dropped to -14C and the ground offensive, having failed to recapture significant swaths of occupied territory, is all but frozen.
Meanwhile, Russian air attacks — supplemented with Iranian drones and, according to the US, North Korean ballistic missiles too — have heated up. The second big strike of the year came on Monday, when Russia launched 59 drones and missiles and Ukraine’s air defences shot down less than half of them, compared with their usual 80 per cent interception rates.
“I don’t have time to count all the strikes,” said Colonel Yuriy Ignat, Ukraine’s air force spokesperson. The recent Russian barrages risked depleting the interceptor missiles used by Ukraine to defend itself, he said. “We need more supplies . . . regular supplies.”
The scale and sophistication of Russia’s latest air strikes are of a different order from last winter’s attacks, according to officials and military analysts.
Russia fired more than 500 drones and missiles between December 29 and January 2 alone, said officials in Kyiv. Increasingly, the main targets appear to be in Ukraine’s defence industry, such as Artem, rather than the energy grid that Russia tried to destroy last winter.
The attacks have been carefully planned, with staggered waves of drones and missiles designed to overwhelm Ukraine’s air defences. On December 30 and January 2, they were augmented by short-range ballistic missiles sourced from North Korea, one of which flew 460km from its Russian launch site, the White House said last week.
On Saturday, Russia fired its third big barrage of the year, launching 40 drones and missiles including ballistic missiles, which its defence ministry said targeted Ukraine’s “military-industrial complex”.
Ukrainian air defence shot down eight of them, while another 20 munitions were electronically jammed and failed to reach their targets, the country’s air force said.
“The Russians are trying to crack the code of Ukraine’s air defence,” said Dara Massicot, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “If they succeed, and Ukraine can’t defend its skies, that’s a huge problem as it opens a way for Russia to send in heavy bombers.”
To break Ukraine’s defences, Russia has typically first launched slow-flying drones, then low-flying subsonic cruise missiles, and lastly ballistic missiles that plummet to their target at multiples of the speed of sound which make them hard to hit.
The deadliest ballistic missile is the Kinzhal, or dagger, which President Vladimir Putin has called “a super weapon”. Russia has also fired Iskander-M ballistic missiles, which are similar to North Korea’s KN-23 missiles that Moscow has now used, defence analysts said.
Ukraine’s mish-mash of air defence systems and surface-to-air missiles, dubbed “FrankenSAM”, has struggled to cope.
The first layer of defence — mobile units that are often a US-provided Humvee mounted with Stinger surface-to-air missiles or heavy machine guns — have been a cheap and effective way of taking down drones and occasionally cruise missiles too, according to Oleksandr, a wiry soldier who has manned a mobile defence team outside Kyiv.
But such units are now struggling to manoeuvre in deep snow, leaving the next layer of Ukraine’s air defences, which includes medium-range systems such as the German-provided IRIS-T and SAMP/T from France and Italy, to intercept the missiles and drones.
“The combined use of hypersonic and subsonic weapons has made it hard for Ukraine to prioritise its air defence targets,” said Sam Cranny-Evans, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.
Hardest of all to intercept are ballistic missiles, which Ignat said only US-made Patriot systems can take down. But Ukraine has just a few Patriot batteries, and the interceptor missiles they fire are expensive and in relatively short supply due to rising demand including from Israel.
Russia’s alleged use of North Korean ballistic missiles in Ukraine, which would violate UN sanctions, has underlined how the balance of supplies might be moving in Moscow’s favour, said officials and military analysts.
Yang Uk, a defence expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said North Korea could have reserves of up to 100 KN-23s, most of which it might transfer to Russia for the right price.
“Pyongyang needs cash right now more than it needs war, and it can always build a new stockpile,” Yang said. Kyiv’s allies led by the US condemned North Korea’s arms transfers this week. Russian officials have called the allegations US “disinformation”.
Moscow was also in “actively advancing” talks with Tehran to acquire close-range ballistic missiles, said US national security spokesman John Kirby.
Iran has the largest ballistic missile programme in the Middle East and could supply Russia “with a few hundred ballistic missiles” just to start, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a US think-tank.
With its economy on a war footing Russia now makes over 100 long-range missiles a month, compared with about 40 at the start of invasion, and around 300 attack drones, according to Ukrainian and western officials. That is not enough to sustain the current pace of attacks, which were only possible after Russia stockpiled missiles for months. But Iranian-supplied drones and North Korean missiles make up some of the shortfall.
“Russia is using whatever it can to wear out Ukraine,” said Gustav Gressel, a former Austrian military officer and now a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.
While Russia is shoring up supplies, Ukraine’s allies in Europe and the US have been unable to approve over $100bn of military aid. The EU has also fallen short in fulfilling existing pledges made to Kyiv, sending less than half the 1mn rounds of ammunition it promised last year.
But Ukraine’s situation was far from hopeless, stressed officials and military analysts.
Tokyo has said it would ease weapons export curbs to allow Japan-made Patriot missiles to be shipped to the US, which in turn would allow Washington to send more of its own stocks to Ukraine. The UK’s £2.5bn military aid package announced on Friday included a significant commitment to procure and produce drones.
Kyiv has also developed a missile with a claimed 700km range, and aims to make more than 11,000 medium and long-range attack drones this year.
It has already hit long-range targets, including Russia’s Smolensk Aviation plant, which makes cruise missiles. On January 4, Kyiv said it destroyed a Russian command post at the Saky air base in Ukraine’s occupied Crimean peninsula.
“These attacks don’t put Russia on the back foot, but they do create problems,” Gressel said. “The question is if Ukraine can scale them up — and hit Russian launchers inside the country and occupied Ukraine.”
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is also lobbying Germany for its Taurus long-range, “bunker buster” cruise missile that could help Kyiv destroy the Kerch bridge linking Crimea with mainland Russia.
So far Berlin has refused to send the missiles, arguing it could escalate the war. Yet the UK and France have already provided Storm Shadow and Scalp cruise missiles.
Asked by the Financial Times about Ukraine’s air defence deficit during a press conference with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on Friday, Zelenskyy said: “We don’t have enough Patriot systems . . . and other long range systems . . . there is definitely a lack of appropriate [defence] systems, especially [those] that fight against ballistics in Ukraine.”
“Something is on the way, we agreed on something new,” the president added, referring to recent discussions with western partners, but he said it was too soon to reveal the details.
Illustrations by Ian Bott
Read the full article here