For two months Russian forces have been pounding Ukraine’s power network with the aim of plunging the country into darkness and breaking its resolve during winter. But in it latest bombardment, on December 5, only 10 out of 70 Russian missiles made it past Ukrainian air defences, according to Kyiv.
The claimed 87 per cent interception rate is testament to the increasing effectiveness of Ukraine’s air defence systems, mainly Soviet-era but recently augmented by modern western equipment and improved techniques.
However, Kyiv is burning through its ammunition at an alarming rate as it faces down Moscow in a battle of dwindling stockpiles — of Russian precision-guided missiles on one hand and Ukrainian interceptors on the other.
Kyiv is therefore urging western backers to provide more modern Nato standard surface-to-air systems.
“If hundreds of rockets are fired at us, we knock down 70-80 per cent. Do they run out or not? Of course [they do],” said Colonel Yuriy Ignat, the Ukrainian air force’s chief spokesperson, referring to his side’s munitions.
Major General Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said last week that Russia was also depleting its stockpile of precision cruise missiles — an assessment shared by many western analysts.
“They have enough for several more massive attacks,” Budanov said, adding that the production of replacements was a slow process.
Russia began what have become almost weekly aerial strikes against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure on October 10. On that day, Ukraine said it shot down only 54 per cent of incoming missiles and drones, resulting in widespread damage to electricity installations.
On November 23, 76 per cent of Russian missiles were shot down, but the damage to a fragile power network was extensive enough to cause nationwide blackouts. In last week’s attack, Ukraine escaped further national outages, although there are still rolling power cuts as technicians race to repair damaged equipment.
Kyiv’s improving air defence capabilities demonstrate the contribution of western military technology to Ukraine’s war effort and its ability to defy Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war plans.
Ukraine denied Russia air supremacy in the wake of the February invasion thanks to its Soviet-era arsenal of S300 and Buk surface-to-air missiles together with thousands of western supplied Manpads.
It has also adjusted its tactics, using mobile units in jeeps to chase down drones and cruise missiles with shoulder-launched Stinger missiles and UK-provided Starstreaks.
Ignat described cat-and-mouse games, where Ukraine moves and hides its air defence units while Russia seeks to find the weak spots.
“The positions of our air defence equipment are constantly changing so that the enemy cannot identify which zone is covered. We are trying to outwit them.”
But ammunition and spares for the S300 and Buk systems, the mainstay of Ukraine’s air defences, are dwindling. Ukrainian officials have confirmed a claim by British military intelligence that Russia has been firing X-55 nuclear missiles — with the nuclear warhead replaced by an inert one — simply to exhaust Ukrainian air defences.
Ignat revealed its units typically fire two S300s or Buks at every Russian missile to improve the chances of interception by what is ageing kit.
Purchasing additional S300 or Buk missiles from Russia, where they are produced, is impossible. Finding further available stock on the global market has proved difficult, apart from a batch obtained from Slovakia earlier in the war.
Britain’s Royal United Services Institute warned in a report last month against “western complacency about the need to urgently bolster Ukrainian air-defence capacity”. It said that if Ukrainian surface-to-air systems ran out of ammunition, it could open the skies to Russian heavy bombers operating at medium and high altitudes with devastating consequences.
Recently deployed western equipment has already demonstrated its value.
Germany’s Gepard mobile anti-aircraft guns, of which Ukraine has received 30 so far, have proved highly effective in taking down drones and low-flying missiles. However, the Swiss government has refused to authorise exports of Gepard’s Swiss-made ammunition to a war zone and there is no ready alternative.
Kyiv has also taken delivery of modern medium-range air defence systems from its allies, including a state of the art Iris-T system from Germany — with three more expected in near future — and two batteries of Norwegian-US Nasams, another medium-range system.
But Ignat said Kyiv would need “hundreds” of these and other systems as it sheds its older arsenal.
“We have no other choice but to switch to these types of weapons since the Soviet weapons of the 70s and 80s are both [ . . . ] obsolete and the enemy is exhausting them every day.”
G7 leaders promised on Monday to “continue to co-ordinate efforts to meet Ukraine’s urgent requirements for military and defence equipment with an immediate focus on providing Ukraine with air defence systems and capabilities”.
What Kyiv has been most keen to acquire from Washington is the longer-range Patriot system, which can intercept Russian ballistic missiles, but the administration of president Joe Biden has so far withheld approval.
“Certainly I would like it to move at the speed of an airplane, but it is moving at the speed of a tank, so it takes time,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said of the approval process.
In the meantime, Kyiv has had to settle for deliveries of the decades-old Hawk anti-aircraft batteries, including six from Spain.
Even if Moscow’s cruise missile stocks are dwindling, it still possesses a vast arsenal of ballistic missiles. It also appears to have taken a new delivery of Iranian-supplied loitering munitions. They are noisy, slow and can be easily shot down. But they are hard to counter fully when launched in swarms. Above all, they are cheaper to purchase than the missiles used to intercept them.
Ukraine’s air force said it shot down 10 of 15 Iranian Shahed kamikaze drones fired on Saturday evening, but those that evaded air defence systems temporarily knocked out most electricity supplies in the strategic Black Sea port city of Odesa, which in turn affected grain exports.
Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Ukraine air force lieutenant colonel and now co-director of the Razumkov Centre think-tank in Kyiv, said Ukrainian air defences had made huge strides since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February.
But he added: “Trying to predict that Russia will one day run out of missiles is probably not a good strategy.”