Kiev warns of new Russian strategies to weaken its air defenses

Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) — A deadly strategy is unfolding in the snowy skies of Ukraine.

Russia began the new year with a barrage of airstrikes, including the deadliest night of missile attacks since the war began, as Ukraine struggles to confront the growing threat with limited supplies of Western defense systems. Used to be.

Russia’s January attacks used the full range of its aerial arsenal: cruise missiles, ballistic missiles from near the Russian-Ukrainian border, hypersonic missiles and slow drones, all sometimes used to strike the same target. are done, it said. Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukrainian presidential adviser, told CNN from Kiev.

International analysts say the avalanche of Russian missiles, accumulated over months, is aimed at overwhelming limited Ukrainian anti-missile defenses.

This approach has had some success. According to Ukrainian officials, the country managed to shoot down only 18 of the 51 missiles fired on January 8.

A new strategy has also come into practice.

Some of the changes are simple: Russia has started painting its Iranian-made drones black to camouflage them in the night sky.

russia ukraine defense strategy

Ukrainian firefighters try to extinguish a fire after a missile attack in Kiev, January 2, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Credit: Zhenya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Others are more sophisticated: Members of a Ukrainian unit told CNN that the Russians turned the engine exhaust of some drones from rear to front, in an effort to confuse anti-aircraft batteries using thermal sights.

Ukrainian media report that jet-powered drones are replacing slower, propeller-driven Russian models, so officials have acknowledged it is a threat that is on their radar.

Speaking on national television, Ukrainian Air Force Command spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said a jet-powered version of the Iranian Shaheed drone, backed by Moscow, would act “like a mini cruise missile.”

He said they likely have a lower payload but a much higher cruising speed, perhaps more than 500 kilometers per hour, which would make them more difficult to shoot down. Ukrainian authorities have not yet confirmed whether these drones have been used in Ukraine or not.

ukraine defense

Ukrainian air defense forces practice with Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns on the outskirts of Kiev. Credit: Joseph Ataman/CNN

Every elimination is a win

On a frozen field on the outskirts of Kiev, soldiers practice with a mobile air defense truck, which is ready to fire within minutes of starting.

Its Soviet-designed heavy machine gun is not state-of-the-art, but combined with a thermal sight and a tablet that displays the image of that sight, two centuries of technology come together on a flatbed truck, it is a powerful weapon against drones. Can be effective, US Army Senior Sergeant Vitaly Yasinsky, squadron commander of the Ukrainian Separate Presidential Brigade, told CNN.

“They used to fly in the same trajectory, but now they zigzag. A drone can take off, then circle, glide, land completely, go up half a kilometer And then can go down rapidly. Now they are very dynamic and must be watched and destroyed,” Yasinsky said of the Iranian shahs.

On cloudy nights, defenders may be forced to use their hearing rather than their sight to aim, and listen for the rumble of the Martyr’s engine.

But it is small, mobile units like Yasinsky that Ukraine is relying on to protect civilians and key infrastructure, especially from slow-flying drones.

Situated within a network of advanced Western missile defense systems, such as the American Patriot or German IRIS-T batteries, better prepared to counter faster Russian missiles, these smaller teams provide a cheaper and more abundant force for defense. Are. from the sky. Of Ukraine.

defense ukraine missile drone

A soldier of “Smeta”, a mobile air defense unit that guards the approaches to Kiev, exercises with a training unit for the American-made Stinger missile system. Some portable US missiles used by mobile air defense units were manufactured in the 1980s, according to the unit, several years before some of the soldiers were born. Credit: Joseph Ataman/CNN

Ukrainian air defense troops tell CNN they have opened boxes of hand-held Stinger anti-aircraft missiles donated by the West, dating back to the Afghan mujahideen’s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, some of them were born decades ago.

But they remain grateful to the weapons.

In videos of Ukrainian air defense units shooting down drones or missiles, the joy in the soldiers’ voices is almost childish.

Each effect is likely to save Ukrainian lives or infrastructure and contribute to depleting Russia’s resources.

In January, US officials revealed that Russia had used North Korean ballistic missiles in attacks on Ukrainian cities, possibly a sign of pressure on Moscow’s arsenal and domestic production of long-range weapons.

Ukrainian officials continue to analyze remains of the latest attacks to determine the origin of the missiles.

defense to the limit

Oleksiy Melnik, co-director of international security programs at the Kiev-based Razumkov Center think tank, told CNN that the latest series of Russian attacks was “very well planned.”

He said that before the deadly attacks were carried out by swarms of drones and individual missiles on various routes, pawns were sacrificed to map out Ukrainian defenses and weak spots.

“Now it is defense industry facilities that are in the spotlight. And although it is not officially acknowledged, a large proportion of these missiles do strike their targets,” he said, adding that incoming Russian projectiles The effectiveness of each interceptor missile fired against is high.

Ukrainian air defenses operate “at the limit of their capability”, Melnyk said, often hitting more than 70% of their targets and sometimes all of them.

Dnipro Ukraine missiles

Destroyed cars are seen outside a shopping mall in a massive Russian missile and drone strike in Dnipro, Ukraine on December 29, 2023. Credit: Ukrinform/Nurfoto/Getty Images

Stopping more missiles would require more interceptor missile batteries, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday his country is “severely short of.” Ukraine is currently unable to produce modern air defense systems with its partners, he said.

But to deter Russian fire, Ukraine needs to target Moscow’s batteries across the border, a difficult challenge given Kiev’s limited access to its own long-range missiles or artillery systems.

“Russia is learning its lesson,” Melnyk said, adding that they sent missiles where they knew they could not be stopped.

civilian deaths

Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, told CNN that he believes Russia’s airstrikes compared to last winter have added a “genocidal component.” He said, in his opinion, civilian casualties are now a priority in Russian attacks on large cities. Russia has repeatedly denied attacks on civilians.

Images of Kiev commuters crowded into the subway during air strikes in early January brought back painful memories of last winter’s Russian air strikes.

According to Ukraine’s president, a small number of Ukrainians were killed in the January attacks, but the country is suffering the consequences of the December 29 attacks in Kiev that killed 33 people, destroying 100 homes and 45 skyscrapers. Gone.

In response, Zelensky promised to “take the war back” to Russia.

Despite the joy his comrades take in neutralizing Russian attacks from the air, “Smeta”, a soldier in an air defense unit on the outskirts of Kiev, feels the pain of every missile he fails to shoot down on the ground Are.

“The most painful thing is that they are killing civilians, homes, kindergartens,” he told CNN. “This does not conform to the rules of war or human morality. It is immoral.”

–Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.

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