Russia tests Ukraine’s defenses with a rarely-used missile

Mar 11, 2023, 10:33 AM | Updated: 10:53 am
KYIV, UKRAINE - MARCH 9, 2023 - A plume of smoke rises above an infrastructure facility in the Holosiivskyi district during Russia's mass missile attack on Ukraine, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. (Photo credit should read Eugen Kotenko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
(Photo credit should read Eugen Kotenko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Originally Published: 10 MAR 23 11:45 ET

    (CNN) — Russia’s overnight missile attack on Thursday showered Ukraine with an array of missiles, in one of Moscow’s biggest aerial assaults for months.

Nearly half a million people are without power in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, following the latest barrage of strikes, according to the regional governor.

And there are concerns about how effectively Ukraine can stand up to such bombardments.

“They’re sending a very strong signal to everyone in Ukraine, and to perhaps some of our refugees outside of Ukraine, that life is very far from returning to normal despite the fact that over recent weeks there was more quiet,” Alexander Rodnyansky, an economic adviser to Zelensky, told CNN.

But aerial strikes like these are not going to win Russia the war, Western experts say.

“There is a long history of nations trying to win wars through strategic bombardment, to break the will or capacity of an opposing state to resist,” Justin Bronk, senior research fellow for airpower and technology at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank, told CNN. “It has an incredibly poor record of success.”

Russia’s limited stockpiles mean it’s unlikely they will force a major breakthrough in the war through the skies, so long as its air force is unable to gain supremacy above Ukraine.

Here’s what you need to know about Russia’s latest missile attacks, and what they mean for the conflict.


What missiles are Russia using?


Russia launched a total of 95 missiles of various types over the past day, 34 of which were intercepted, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in a morning update on Friday, as well as a number of Iranian-made Shahed drones.

That array included cruise missiles that were launched from both the sea and the air; six different kinds were used in the early hours of Thursday morning, according to Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Much attention has been focused on the six launches of Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles, which are especially difficult to stop.

The powerful weapon has rarely been seen over the country’s skies. Its first known use in Ukraine was last March and occasionally used since, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Like virtually all ballistic missiles it is hypersonic, which means it travels at least five times the speed of sound, but it is also particularly difficult to detect because it can be launched from MiG-31 fighter jets, giving it a longer range and the ability to attack from multiple directions, and because it can maneuver as it nears its target.


Is this a new strategy?


The use of so many different weapons systems in one night has increasingly become Russia’s preferred method of striking through the skies.

“Over the last six months or so there’s been a trend towards larger gaps between missile raids, but more missiles used at once when they do, to make it harder for defenses to intercept them all,” Bronk said.

That shift has come as Ukraine’s air defenses have become better equipped and more advanced, and as a way of maximizing the impact of each wave of strikes.

“Moscow looks to have been adapting its missile attacks to further complicate the challenge for defenders, with a mix of subsonic cruise missiles, the much higher speed Kinzhal aero-ballistic missiles, and possibly also decoys and other counter-measures,” Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said.

The use of hypersonic missiles in particular follows the Kremlin’s years-long push to equip its military with such weaponry — a move that the United States and the West has been less keen to adopt, given the trade-offs in pursuing hypersonic capabilities.

“What you get is a missile that is much harder to intercept and gives your opponent much less warning. What you lose is that it’s much more expensive, and often can only be carried by a much more limited number of platforms,” Bronk explained.


How effective are Ukraine’s air defenses?


Ukraine’s air defense systems did not stand up well enough against Russia’s nuclear-capable Kinzhal missiles, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky said following Thursday’s missile barrage.

“They are using hypersonic missiles. They are using new types of weapons and they are seeing how our air defense systems can cope with it,” Rodnyansky told CNN’s Isa Soares in an interview, adding, “they are not coping well enough.”

Ukraine has adapted to new Russian aerial bombardments in the past, improving their ability to shoot down incoming cruise missiles with surface-to-air defenses and seeing particularly high levels of success against Shahed drones.

“They’ve seen a lot of the potential patterns in terms of routes and the way the Russians plan their missile salvos, so they’ve got better at positioning their air defense teams,” Bronk said. Ukraine’s command and control, and its ability to track incoming strikes — often with the help of Ukrainians via an app — has also grown, he added.

But the Kinzhal provides a specific challenge: It is immune to Ukraine’s air defenses. An air-launched variant of the Iskander short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) which has also, more frequently, been used in Ukraine, the Kinzhal was unveiled by Putin in 2018 as a cornerstone of a modernized Russian arsenal.

“Russia likely developed the unique missile to more easily target critical European infrastructure … (its) speed, in combination with the missile’s erratic flight trajectory and high maneuverability, could complicate interception,” according to a CSIS report.


How much firepower does Russia have left?


While Russia has deployed a handful of missiles that Ukraine is currently unable to stop, it appears unlikely that such attacks will become a regular or decisive feature of the conflict — because, by most Western assessments, Russia is running low on supplies.

Ihnat said that Russia had about 50 Kinzhals to draw upon, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted, meaning it used a significant proportion in one night.

“The Kremlin likely deliberately launched missiles that Ukrainian air defenses cannot intercept to achieve results within the Russian information space despite the dwindling supplies of such missiles,” the ISW wrote in its latest assessment of the conflict, adding that Vladimir Putin “likely used these scarce missiles in fruitless attacks to appease the Russian pro-war and ultranationalist communities.”

“The Russians are getting low on missiles and yet they continue to fire them,” Bronk added, explaining that Moscow can produce somewhere around 40 cruise missiles each month.

Bronk said Moscow appears comfortable running down supplies that would have been theoretically preserved for an attack on Russian soil. But now they are also “getting to a point where they are really low on certain missile types in absolute terms,” he said.


Why is Moscow attacking the entire country?


The benefits to Russia in using scant supplies in aerial bombardments appears limited, and seems unlikely to shift momentum in the war — particularly given that Ukraine is through the worst of what turned out to be a mild winter, when Putin had hoped that attacks on energy and electricity supplies would break morale.

“It’s very damaging for Ukraine, but is it likely to cause them to lose the ability to keep fighting the war? No, absolutely not,” Bronk said, assessing the use of such strikes.

But the use of a frustrating if ultimately fruitless tactic is not out of character for a disjointed Russian war effort.

“They don’t really have any military plan beyond outlasting the West’s ability to support the Ukrainian military,” Bronk said. “In other words, just avoid losing on the battlefield for long enough that the West gets tired of supporting them.”

In that context, the strikes serve as a psychological reminder of Russia’s military threat without shifting the balance of the war.

And Putin may foremost be playing to a domestic audience with the strikes, as the ISW suggested, amid growing complaints among Russia’s hawkish military community that his commanders have been too “soft” or ineffective in Ukraine and have struggled to land lasting blows.

“Putin likely attempted to offset these narratives with another missile attack similar to the ones that Russia conducted in the fall of 2022, using advanced missiles to guarantee some damage in Ukraine,” the ISW wrote.

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Russia tests Ukraine’s defenses with a rarely-used missile