NIAS Europe Studies

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NIAS Europe Studies
The War in Ukraine: Drones, missiles and counterattacks

  Padmashree Anandhan

By Padmashree Anandhan

On 01 January, following the attack in Belgorod, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, issued a warning. Putin stated: “We are striking with high-precision weapons at the decision-making centres, at locations where military personnel and mercenaries gather.”

On 30 December 2023, Belgorod district located in southwestern Russia was subject to a repeated missile and drone strike from Ukraine injuring more than 100 and killing 24 civilians. 

On 02 January, the Ukrainian Air Force reported on its struggle to counter Russia’s drone attack (Tupolev Tu-95s bombers) in Kyiv. Apart from this, missile attacks were reported in Kharkiv resulting in damage to residential buildings and civilian infrastructure injuring many and killing four. On the same day, Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, citing the mass missile attack in Kyiv and Kharkiv demanded more air defence aid such as “Patriot, IRIS-T, and NASAMS.”

On 02 January, in response to the missile attacks in Kyiv and Kharkiv, Russia Today reported on how the targets were planned by the Russian Ministry of Defence. Russian armed forces claimed to have carried out a group strike using long-range precision weapons and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) on the military complex of Ukraine. According to the report from Russian officials, the attack was targeted at facilities in Kyiv and the suburbs that produced missiles and drones including the repair sites. Additionally, Russia claimed to hit missile depots, ammunition and aircraft weaponry.

On 05 January, the White House issued a statement citing the usage of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) of North Korea by Russia for the mass missile attack in Ukraine. The US National Security spokesperson John Kirby called the transfer of missiles a “significant and concerning escalation.”

Major Issues
First, increasing mass missile attacks. Kyiv which has been subject to missile attacks since November 2023 is considered to be the resort when attacks escalate for Russia. Critical and energy infrastructures such as power plants and substations, district heating networks and telecommunications equipment have been the targets. Since January, the military depots, production sites and complexes have also come under intense attack. On the ground, with not much push or pull in the front line, Russia continues to advance north and south of Bakhmut except on the east bank of the Dnipro River. Considering the frequency, the mass missile attacks and Russia’s air power seem to be intact against Ukraine.

“The military is set to face a critical shortage, especially in air defence if the package remains blocked.”

Second, Russia’s winter manoeuvrability. After the rocket attack launched in August 2023 in Kharkiv following Ukraine’s attack on the Crimean bridge, the November attacks were considered the largest. Russia targeted Kyiv’s administrative cities and energy infrastructure with 75 Shahed drones. The December 2023 attack by Russia on Ukraine with 120 missiles can be seen as the third wave. Moscow's forces seem to have adapted their tactics compared to last winter 2022 by preceding their missiles with waves of drones with a mission to inundate Kyiv's air defence capabilities while depleting its ammunition reserves.

Third, Ukraine’s continuing to plead for air defence support. Kyiv welcomes this support, but it also recognises the dependency on the outcome of the current political deadlock in the US, which is stalled over the 2024 Presidential elections. The military is set to face a critical shortage, especially in air defence if the package remains blocked. This leaves Ukraine with the challenge to continue to shield itself against such mass missile strikes.
Fourth, Ukraine’s strategy and question of peace. Zelensky in his recent interview with the Economist denied the notion of Russia’s win citing the losses incurred by Russia to be more. Confirming the failure of the mid-2023 counteroffensive, appraised the Ukraine forces' efforts in countering Russia in the Black Sea. Despite the lack of air defences, Ukraine has outperformed expectations by strategically utilising the resources while leaving the possibility of peace out of the discussion.

Road Ahead
First, a greyer 2024 ahead for Ukraine. Overall looking at the trend of Russia’s wave of mass missiles in response to the attacks of Ukraine and consistently at Kyiv showcases its symbolic attitude to showcase its strength. The pledged weapons and air defence systems do show promise for Ukraine’s battle against Russia but with the increase in the frequency of the mass missile attacks, it is downside for Ukraine, forced into a fight. Without Western countries promising long-term military support with the next level of weapon systems such as long-range Ukraine is left in the grey zone.

Second, a confident Russia. With the tactical use of weapons such as rockets, Shahed drones and a mass number of missiles since the 2023 winter, Russia has succeeded in showcasing its air power.

“The pledged weapons and air defence systems do show promise for Ukraine’s battle against Russia but with the increase in the frequency of the mass missile attacks, it is downside for Ukraine, forced into a fight.”

Putin’s symbolic year-end conference and the following statements to retaliate show the plan in place and the readiness of Russia to strike back. This also proves the vacillation of the sanctions and restrictions on other actors such as China, and Iran imposed to control Russia by the West.


About the Author
Ms Anandhan is a Project Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. As part of the NIAS Europe Studies, her research focuses on issues relating to politics, protests, Brexit, economy, maritime and NATO' operations. 

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