The intense waves of Russian bombardments on kyiv no longer reach the devastation that Moscow proposed. In the last one, with more than 15 missiles of different types and numerous drones, most were intercepted. What has changed since two months ago Ukraine declared itself incapable of stopping the attacks?
The Ukrainian Air Force highlighted this week the effectiveness of anti-aircraft systemsafter they intercepted 6 supersonic missiles at dawn Kinzhal. “It’s an impressive number,” said spokesman Yuriy Ignat, in a speech in which he recalled that kyiv continues to be “a priority target for the enemy.”
Although the city did not escape unscathed, experts agree that this is an extraordinary advance in defense.
Just a few weeks ago, a leaked Pentagon document suggested that Ukraine’s reserves were about to run out. Even the government of Volodimir Zelensky itself recognized the shortcomings, after the heavy losses from the bombings on March 9, when Russia launched more than 80 missiles against the main cities. That day, the ballistic missiles easily evaded the air defenses.
Today, the panorama is different. Since then, the allies supplied various equipment.
Sophisticated Western air defense systems, including US-made Patriot missiles, have helped prevent Kiev from the kind of destruction seen along the country’s main eastern and southern front lines. Although most of the ground fighting is stalemate along that front line, both sides are attacking other territories with long-range weapons.
Ukraine’s strengthened air defenses have deterred Russian aircraft from entering the neighboring country. They are saving infrastructure and lives and preventing Russia from achieving air superiority, an essential step as the Ukrainians prepare for a counteroffensive.
“They have largely determined the course of the war,” Ian Williams wrote this month in an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
In early May, kyiv announced for the first time that it had succeeded in shooting down Russia’s most advanced hypersonic missile, a weapon that until then Ukraine considered unstoppable. A newly purchased American-made Patriot battery made this possible.
How it began
On the first day of the invasion, Russia attacked Ukraine’s ground-based air defense systems, first with a wave of missiles and then with dozens of airstrikes supported by electronic warfare measures that essentially blinded Ukrainian radars, Justin Bronk wrote in a paper by April for the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analysis.
But Ukraine had received information from the Allies before the Russian attacks, which allowed the Ukrainian defenders to move mobile units out of harm’s way, although some fixed positions were destroyed.
Units scattered, and for a brief period Russia was able to fly in waves of helicopters, supported by fighters, and inflict heavy losses on Ukrainian planes sent to intercept them.
But the Russians failed to follow up on their initial attacks, allowing Ukraine to quickly regroup, said Douglas Barrie, an aerospace defense specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“They didn’t check again: Did we destroy it? Do we deactivate it? Do we have to do it again? Have they relocated?” he said.
The brigade commander of the “Center” air defense command is a colonel who could only be identified by his callsign, “Granite”, in line with the Ukrainian army’s policy of protecting the identity of soldiers. During an Associated Press visit to his unit, he recounted how his brigade was hit on the first day of the war by 20 Russian missiles, destroying barracks and command posts and killing people.
Having abandoned their fixed positions, they now operate strictly as mobile teams that can quickly spring into action and just as quickly slip away, a tactic commonly known as “shoot and slip”.
After initial setbacks to Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses, enough mobile units were operational by the third day of the war to shoot down several aircraft, forcing Russia to withdraw its attack aircraft and depriving it of a key advantage.
But many of the Russian missiles kept coming in.
Granite estimated in the first few months that Ukraine was intercepting around 50% of incoming Russian missiles. The CSIS report suggested that the number may actually have been much lower.
With the arrival of new Western-made air defense systems in October and November, as well as the increasing prowess of Ukrainian batteries, Ukraine claimed to have intercepted around 80% of Russian cruise missiles by December.
Now, Granite claims that the figure is close to 90%, and stated days ago that the defense systems around kyiv have shot down 100% of the missiles fired at the city since April 28. “kyiv is protected”, he assured.
The two key systems used by Ukraine since the start of the war have been the long-range S300 and medium-range Buk, also known as the SA-10 and SA-11, from the Soviet era.
Ukraine has been gradually bringing in new systems from Western allies, such as Germany’s IRIS-T batteries in October and US- and Norwegian-made NASAMS in November.
It has also received European-made SAMP/T systems and US-made HAWK missiles, and last month added two US-made Patriot batteries.
Air defense teams are configured with overlapping range rings, starting with short, near-point-blank defenses using shoulder-launched missiles and anti-aircraft guns, up to longer ranges.
According to Barrie, a single layer would not be enough to stop all attacks, or even most. “But the more layers you have, the more possibilities you have”.
Although all recent attacks on kyiv have been thwarted, the remnants of falling missiles and drones have caused injuries and damage in the capital. But that’s nothing compared to what could have happened, Granite said. In the April 28 attacks, a missile hit an apartment building in the central city of Uman, killing 23 people.
With so many Russian attacks, some speculate that Moscow’s strategy is to try to deplete Ukraine’s air defense resources to the point that Russia can once again exploit its advantage with fighters and bombers. But there are also signs that Russia is running out of missiles.
So far, Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky has successfully lobbied his allies for more air defense supplies. The United States on Monday announced $1.2 billion more in long-term military aid, including new HAWK systems, drones and air defense munitions.
“The package also contains ammunition to shoot down unmanned aerial systems, commercial services, satellite imaging, and support for training, maintenance, and sustainment activities,” the Pentagon added.
For its part, the United Kingdom confirmed on Monday the shipment of hundreds of air defense missiles to Ukraine. In London, Zelensky admitted that Ukraine had not yet ruled the skies over the country, a situation that was slowly changing.
(With information from AP)
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