Russia’s winter onslaught tests Ukraine’s firepower 

Russia’s winter onslaught tests Ukraine’s firepower 

5 minutes, 43 seconds Read

Russia is resuming its winter strategy of pounding Ukraine into submission with missiles and drones — but Kyiv finds itself in a far more tenuous position this year as resources run low and more Western assistance is up in the air. 

Russia fired some 500 missiles and drones from Dec. 29 to Jan. 2, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. While Ukraine is still managing to thwart the majority of the missiles and drones, Russia is slowly breaking through more of the strained air defense systems.

And Ukraine may only have another two months of air defense firepower without additional Western assistance, Ukrainian officials warn. 

Matt Duss, executive vice president at the Center for International Policy, said Ukraine will eventually have to “start rationing what supplies they do have” left, endangering the protection of some cities. 

“That will force them to make some pretty tough choices with regard to their defenses,” he said. “This has been the Russian strategy all along, to try and wear Ukraine down and to wear down the Western commitment to assisting Ukraine.” 

Though Ukraine is facing enormous challenges this winter, Zelensky said Wednesday his nation is unbowed. 

“We will surely defeat it,” he said at a ceremony. “Despite all Russia’s missile attacks, despite any intentions of the enemy, we will definitely defend our country.” 

With valuable air defense systems, including Patriot systems from the U.S., Ukraine has fended off the brunt of Russian attacks, including hypersonic Kinzhal missiles. 

But Russia’s efforts to exhaust a dwindling Ukrainian inventory with mass strikes are also bolstered by a major boost of missile production at home. 

The Dec. 29 bombardment was the single largest Russian aerial attack on Ukraine since the war started, according to Ukrainian officials, with at least 30 killed and hundreds injured from Kyiv to the southern city of Odesa. 

Ukraine took down 114 of the 158 missiles and drones Russia launched that day. 

During a Tuesday strike, Ukraine intercepted 72 out of 99 targets. Five people were killed and dozens wounded in Kyiv and the northeastern city of Kharkiv. 

Baltic nations near Ukraine immediately raised the need for more air defenses following the latest attacks.

“Ukrainian air defense works well but Ukraine must get more help,” Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “New Year’s celebrations are over and the West must get serious and act now.” 

Ukrainian officials spoke with the U.S. and the U.K. this week on strengthening air defenses, and Kyiv has called for an emergency meeting with the Western security alliance NATO on the issue. 

NATO is heavily reliant on U.S. support to meet defense needs, including for Ukraine assistance. But the alliance said Wednesday it would help allies scale up production to procure 1,000 Patriot missiles, which could free up inventory for Kyiv. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin began a mass bombing campaign against Ukraine heading into last year’s winter as well, targeting energy infrastructure in an ultimately failed bid to cow the Ukrainian people into submission.  

This year’s assault has a wider focus, more directly targeting military infrastructure to cripple Ukraine, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update. Russia committed a significant proportion of its missile stocks to attacking Ukraine from Dec. 29 to Jan. 2, U.K. analysts added. 

Despite initial challenges with Western sanctions, Russia has learned to evade them, boosting its wartime economy and increasing missile production. It is now producing up to 100 long-range missiles a month. 

And Moscow may be getting smarter with targeting Ukraine in its aerial attacks.  

The Institute for the Study of War assessed a “notable recent increase” in Russia’s Shahed drones penetrating Ukrainian air defenses on the night of Dec. 29 and on Dec. 31, which could be due to more strategic firing or covert operations.

Matthew Schmidt, associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, said Russia is spending “millions of dollars to create one Ukrainian casualty” but warned that was part of a strategy to swarm Ukraine. 

“That’s why Russia engaged in the kind of attack that they did, trying to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses and suck up those missiles,” and to “force Ukraine to fire the ammunition that they have and deplete them,” Schmidt said. 

Across the front line, fighting has slowed down, and neither side is making any crucial advances, with no major developments expected in the coming weeks. Russia is assaulting the town of Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region, but Moscow is taking heavy losses for incremental gains. 

By decreasing the power of Ukraine’s air defenses, however, Putin will be positioned for a stronger offensive, according to the Royal United Services Institute

Brock Bierman, a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, also said Putin will seize on the delay of further Western assistance to Ukraine.

“I would not be surprised if Putin took any tactical advantage over the next several months because of what’s going on,“ he said. “The longer the assistance takes to pass through Congress, the more it feeds into his calculation.” 

Already, Ukraine’s air defense munitions and artillery shells are running low. Ukraine is starting up its own production of the critical defense munitions, but that could take years to fully come online. 

In the U.S., Congress remains ensnared in talks on the U.S.-Mexico border, which will be tied to any future Ukraine aid package. The European Union, too, has not moved on a more than $50 billion package after Hungary blocked it. 

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said at a briefing before the holiday break that Congress must act to support Ukraine. 

“Look at the situation that Ukraine finds itself in,” he said. “We will obviously continue to support them. But it is imperative that we have the funds needed to ensure that they get the most urgent battlefield capabilities that they require.” 

Peter Dickinson, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog, warned of a “very real danger that Ukraine could exhaust its existing stocks of air defense ammunition in the coming weeks.” 

“The consequences of a collapse in Ukraine’s air defenses would be catastrophic,” Dickinson wrote in an analysis, predicting thousands of Ukrainian casualties from a single wave of Russian attacks in the event of a collapse.

“As long as Western leaders insist on restricting Ukraine’s ability to strike back at Russia,” he added, “Ukrainian commanders will be forced to fight the air war with a shield but no sword.” 

In a New Year’s interview with The Economist, Zelensky said Western partners should stand behind Ukraine or remove themselves from the conflict. 

“If you don’t have the strength, then either get out or step aside,” he added. “We will not retreat.” 

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