Russia launched a relentless barrage of missiles and drones into Ukraine during the last few days of 2023 and into the new year, revealing weaknesses in Ukrainian air defences that allowed dozens of people to be killed and hundreds wounded.
Russia’s Ministry of Defence said it was targeting military industry and infrastructure, something Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny confirmed; but many of the missiles landed on apartment buildings, shopping centres and a maternity hospital in city centres.
Even as Ukraine’s allies called for reinforcements in air defence, Ukraine responded punitively, launching drones into the Russian city of Belgorod that killed at least 26 people.
Overall, Russia was able to deliver greater volumes than Ukraine and attack more often, demonstrating the industrial might it has quietly nurtured under a barrage of Western sanctions.
Frustrating war on the ground
This aerial war played out against a static front line, where Russia now seems to have taken the initiative in assaulting Ukrainian positions – a reversal of the situation during last summer’s Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The slight changes on the military map were in Russia’s favour. Russian forces advanced north and south of Bakhmut, overrunning Bohdanivka and parts of Klishchiivka, villages Ukrainian troops won during weeks of bloody battles last summer, and from which they hoped to surround the occupied city.
But despite repeated assaults, Russian forces were unable to dislodge a Ukrainian bridgehead from the village of Krynky on the east bank of the Dnipro in Kherson.
Here, Ukrainian special forces have stolen a march on the Russians in recent weeks, occupying islands in the Dnipro delta along with a chunk of the riverbank, from where they have conducted counter-battery fire. Russian forces have lost 143 units of military equipment trying to pierce Ukrainian defences. Russian commanders have become so frustrated that they have reportedly ordered their troops to walk across Ukrainian minefields – a suicidal tactic known as the “Zhukov manoeuvre”.
Battle of missile factories
Even as these desperate battles played out on the flatlands of Europe’s most fertile country, Russia opened a new chapter in the air war on December 29.
Under cover of darkness, it unleashed a combination of at least 156 drones and missiles against Kyiv, Odesa, Lviv and Kharkiv. Ukraine’s armed forces said it was the largest single aerial attack on Kyiv. Military analysts said it was the largest series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine in almost two years of full-scale war.
The Ukrainian Air Force shot down 114 of the missiles and drones, but could not prevent Russia from killing 39 people and injuring 159.
Twenty-four hours earlier, The New York Times had published an op-ed by a member of its editorial board, calling for Ukraine to negotiate. “Regaining territory is the wrong way to imagine the best outcome,” wrote Serge Schmemann.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded on X: “Today, millions of Ukrainians woke up to the loud sounds of explosions. I would like the whole world to hear these sounds of explosions … in all editorial offices that write about ‘fatigue’ or that Russia is allegedly ready for ‘negotiations’.”
US President Joe Biden, urging Congress anew to pass $61bn in military funding for Ukraine, said, “It is a stark reminder to the world that, after nearly two years of this devastating war, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s objective remains unchanged. He seeks to obliterate Ukraine and subjugate its people. He must be stopped.”
The attack appeared “to be a culmination of several months of Russian experimentation with various drone and missile combinations and efforts to test Ukrainian air defenses”, wrote the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, DC-based think tank.
Until December 29, Russia had mainly or exclusively used drones, the ISW said, sacrificing these relatively cheap tools to probe aerial defences and figure out optimal flight paths. On this occasion, Russia used just 36 Shahed-type drones and 120 missiles of various types.
The experiment was a success, the ISW said, as Ukrainian forces failed to intercept a wide array of missiles.
The experiment was also the culmination of months of preparation in ramping up missile production. Ukraine’s military intelligence had estimated in November that Russia was able to produce about 100 missiles a month despite sanctions. This meant that Russia spent about a month’s worth of production capacity in a single night, making that scale of barrage unsustainable. It was also economically unsustainable. Ekonomichna Pravda, a Ukrainian business newspaper, estimated the cost to Russia of the drones and missiles at $1.27bn, using Forbes data. Russia’s entire 2024 defence and security budget is $157bn.
Revenge and counter-revenge
The next day, Ukraine said it launched more than 70 drones against Russian military infrastructure and defence industrial facilities near Moscow, Belgorod, Tula, Tver, and Bryansk cities. Russia’s Defence Ministry said it downed 32 drones, suggesting that many made it through.
Twenty-five people were reported killed in Belgorod. Geolocated footage showed smoke over Bryansk city the next day, suggesting Ukraine may have succeeded in hitting the Kremniy EL factory, Russia’s second-largest producer of microelectronics, most of whose output reportedly goes to the military.
Russia responded. On December 31, Ukraine said it shot down 21 out of 49 drones launched by Russia – an unusually small number, possibly because many were directed at Ukrainian front lines rather than civilian areas, Russia’s usual tactic. It also launched six S-300 missiles into central Kharkiv, injuring 28 people, and again attacked at 1am with drones, causing further damage to shops and cafes but not more casualties.
On January 1, Ukraine’s air force said it shot down 87 out of 90 Shahed drones launched from Crimea and Russia, targeting Odesa, Lviv and Dnipro. Later in the day, six Russian missiles hit Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, injuring 28 people.
Many of Ukraine’s allies called for more air defence systems to be provided, but only the United Kingdom pledged any, saying it was sending Ukraine 200 air-launched air defence missiles. “Putin is testing Ukraine’s defences and the West’s resolve, hoping that he can clutch victory from the jaws of defeat. But he is wrong,” British Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said.
Ukraine said it destroyed nine out of 10 Shahed drones launched by Russia overnight on January 1.
Another wave of drones and missiles came overnight on January 2, including 35 Shahed drones and 99 missiles of various types. Ukraine said it shot down all the drones and 72 of the missiles. In an important victory, it managed to shoot down all 10 Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles using US-made Patriot air defence systems.
Ukraine responded with another air attack on Belgorod – launching at least 17 missiles and drones, killing one person – on January 2, and launched a dozen missiles and several drones into Belgorod the following day.
If nothing else, the pattern of Russian attacks confirmed Ukraine’s oft-stated position that if left in Russian hands, Crimea would remain a security threat to its southern regions. Many of the drones and missiles that hit Ukraine were launched from the occupied Crimea Peninsula.
“The costs and challenges of Ukraine’s defense vary dramatically if Crimea returns to Ukraine or remains in Russia’s hands,” wrote the ISW in a strategy paper. “If Ukraine liberates the peninsula along with Russian-occupied lines in the south … then the imminent threat to Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odesa vanishes and the threat to Melitopol is dramatically reduced,” it said.
The content above is provided by Al Jazeera news.
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