Russian officials must be reeling in utter disbelief after seven of their most sophisticated missiles were blasted out of the sky in an incredible night of drama over Kyiv.
When Ukraine’s Defense Express outlet reported that just one Kh-47 “Dagger” missile had been shot down with a U.S.-made Patriot air defense system earlier this month, it prompted fury in Russia.
On Saturday, U.S. officials told CNN that the Russian missile attack on May 5 was targeting the Patriot itself. Russian officials called the interception “wishful thinking”—even as Ukrainian and U.S. officials made statements to the contrary. The Kremlin had believed these weapons were all but “unstoppable.”
Those Russian claims were left in disarray early Tuesday when a further six Kh-47s were reportedly shot down in a single night.
In one of the most intense aerial assaults on the capital since the war began, Ukrainian air defenses took down 18 missiles that were targeting the city.
The night sky over Kyiv was rocked by explosions as the new Patriot missile defense system responded to an unprecedented, coordinated barrage of missiles.
Six of the highly acclaimed Kh-47 missiles were launched from MiG-31K aircraft, three S-400 cruise missiles were fired from land, and a further nine Kalibr cruise missiles were launched from the Black Sea.
All of them were taken out, according to the Ukrainian air force, with no casualties reported.
Serhiy Popko, the head of the Kyiv military administration, described the attack as “exceptional in its density—the maximum number of attacking missiles in the shortest period of time.”
The interceptions are an embarrassment for the Russian military. Back in 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin billed the Dagger, or Kinzhal in Russian, as a “next-generation” Russian weapon. Russian officials claimed that the missile can go 10 times faster than the speed of sound, reach any point in Ukraine, and is able to evade all but the most sophisticated air defense systems. Experts questioned those claims, arguing that the missile is just a modification of an existing missile that Putin was trying to rebrand.
Even if Russia was lying about the Kinzhal’s speed and survivability, it still poses a big threat to Kyiv. Ukraine’s pre-war air defense systems, which are older and stretched thin trying to protect the front from Russian aircraft and major cities from missiles and Iranian drones, had a vanishingly low chance of shooting them down.
That’s why Kyiv’s clamor to get hold of the American Patriot defenses was so acute.
Ukraine has always taken the Kinzhal very seriously. The mere possibility that Putin could fire a Kinzhal sets off every air raid siren in the country at once. Ukraine’s air defenders can intercept most Russian missiles and drones, but the Kinzhal could not be shot down by any Ukrainian air defense system—until now.
Before the incredible events of early Tuesday morning, it was still unclear how the Patriot system would respond. That’s why claims about shooting down the first Kinzhal were so controversial and so cautiously managed by Kyiv.
Ukrainian officials initially stated that they had no information that a Kinzhal was downed and briefly denied it, but officials later admitted that they did indeed shoot down the missile in early May.
There are a few explanations for the confusion. In addition to the possibility that spokespersons were improperly briefed about the intercept, Ukrainian commentators explained that officials hesitate to talk about something as sensitive as air defense capabilities over the capital city.
On May 9, the Pentagon press secretary repeatedly confirmed that Ukraine shot down a Kinzhal with a Patriot. The day after, Ukraine put the wreckage of the missile on display for journalists from the German newspaper Bild, which posted a video on Twitter.
Russia used its Kinzhals sparingly for much of 2022, but recently started using them more as Moscow’s stock of less-advanced missiles declined. In March, Russia used six in a day as part of a larger attack on Kyiv and other cities across the country. Its survivability against Ukrainian air defense made it a particular concern for Kyiv, which activates air raid sirens if they detect the MiG-31 aircraft that can launch the missile.
The arrival of several Patriot air defense systems and other sophisticated weapons from the U.S. and Europe changes Ukraine’s air defense prospects. Since Putin’s terror bombing of cities across Ukraine in October of last year, NATO and other countries have gradually sent advanced air defense systems to Kyiv.
The German Iris-T arrived in October and has since shot down more than 60 targets. The Franco-Italian SAMP/T and Patriot were pledged in December and only recently arrived, along with trained Ukrainian crews. These so-called Kinzhal superweapons have actually been intercepted by a system that entered U.S. service 40 years ago (although it has been heavily modernized since.)
Knowing that advanced air defense systems would challenge Putin’s terror bombing campaign, Russian officials eagerly issued threats against the U.S. for sending Patriots.
Last November, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is now deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, claimed Patriots sent to Ukraine “would become a legitimate target” for Russia’s armed forces and that NATO should be “dissolved” if it agreed to send them. After the U.S. announced it would send Patriots, Russian officials stated that there could be unspecified “consequences” for the U.S. before dropping the subject entirely.
The Kinzhal interceptions are good news for President Volodymyr Zelensky, but they don’t mean the end of Putin’s missile campaign. The Patriot has a range of up to 100 miles depending on which kind of interceptor is used, but Ukraine has a lot of airspace to defend and a limited number of Patriot batteries.
If the first missile was indeed targeting the Patriot battery itself, then Ukraine will have to be more cautious about moving them. The city of Kyiv might be safer, but less secure urban centers like Odesa and Zaporizhzhya are frequent targets for Russian missiles.
So long as Russia has sufficient long-range missiles and drones to strike Ukraine’s cities, Zelensky will be after more and better air defense. Ukrainian officials consistently ask partners for aircraft like the F-16 to improve their air defense, but NATO and especially the U.S. are nervous about providing Western-made jets.
Much like the discourse about Patriots in late 2022, detractors argue that F-16s are too expensive, complicated, and of limited benefit. If the debate about jets follows the same track as Patriots, Ukraine may manage to convince its partners that they will make a difference.
As the Kinzhal interceptions show, Ukraine’s air defenders will use everything they can to defend their skies, and the advanced U.S. weaponry is making Putin look weaker by the day.
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