Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s biggest cities will force Kyiv to choose between deploying its scarce air defence systems to protect civilians or using them to press ahead with the counteroffensives that have reclaimed huge swaths of territory.
Western and Ukrainian officials, as well as military analysts, have cited a lack of air defences as one of Kyiv’s main weaknesses as it seeks to protect itself from Russian attacks, such as the mass missile and drone strikes that hit several of its largest cities early on Monday.
Russia fired more than 80 cruise missiles and 24 drones into Ukraine during morning rush hour, which President Vladimir Putin said was retaliation for the explosion over the weekend that collapsed part of the Kerch bridge connecting Russia and the occupied Crimean peninsula.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said more than half of the projectiles were shot down, but dozens were able to strike Kyiv and other population centres, killing civilians and damaging civil infrastructure.
Some of the missiles were fired by Russian navy vessels in the Black Sea but Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Iran-made Shahed-136 drones were also used. The city of Bila Tserkva, near Kyiv, was hit by six of the drones last week, suggesting Russia can deploy them from more than 200km away.
“Air defence is currently the number 1 priority in our defence co-operation,” Zelenskyy said on Twitter after a call with US president Joe Biden.
“President Biden pledged to continue providing Ukraine with the support needed to defend itself, including advanced air defence systems,” according to a White House account of the call.
In a statement Biden condemned the missile strikes, which he said “demonstrate the utter brutality of Mr Putin’s illegal war on the Ukrainian people”.
Monday’s strikes underscore how hard it is for a country as large as Ukraine to protect itself fully against continued Russian air attacks, even though Kyiv has pleaded for more air defence systems and western allies have stepped up their delivery.
“The problem isn’t so much that Ukraine hasn’t got any air defences,” said one western defence adviser. “It’s that Ukraine has not got enough to defend such a big country, and the missiles can also come from so many directions.”
As part of the successful counteroffensives in the east and south of the country, Kyiv has already moved some of its air defence systems to the front line to give coverage to the troops involved, according to a senior western official, reducing the numbers available to defend civilian areas.
“They have limited long-range, high-precision [air defence systems],” the official said. “They need more.”
Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, told the Financial Times that Kyiv had instructed its diplomats in western capitals to press the case for more air defence equipment.
“That’s what we’re all talking about” in the wake of Monday’s attacks, he said, adding that the recent appointment of Sergei Surovikin, a general known for using indiscriminate bombing during Russia’s intervention in Syria, to run the Ukraine campaign made it clear that Moscow would concentrate on using missile, rocket and drone strikes on civilian areas.
Ukraine has received a range of air defence systems from US and European allies since Russian forces invaded in February, from portable shoulder-fired short-range missiles to longer more sophisticated air defence rockets.
But as with its artillery, which is a mash-up of Russian and various western-made howitzers, it has no single overarching air defence system.
The US is in the next few months set to deliver the first two of the eight National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (Nasams) that Washington has pledged to supply. Germany is also due to hand over the first of four Iris-T ground-based air defence systems in the next few days, fulfilling a promise made in the summer by chancellor Olaf Scholz.
“Russia’s attacks with rockets and drones are terrorising the civilian population,” said German defence minister Christine Lambrecht. “That’s why we’re supporting [Ukraine], particularly with air defence systems.”
The western technology will add to Ukraine’s existing stock of Soviet-made equipment, such as the S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system designed to take out ballistic and cruise missiles, and which analysts say has so far been deployed mostly around its cities.
Ukraine also has mid-range systems such as the SA-11 Buk that are designed to shoot down smart bombs and cruise missiles, as well as fixed and rotary wing aircraft, and have been deployed more near front lines.
But as Zelenskyy told Biden last month after thanking him for the Nasams, they were still “not nearly enough to cover the civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, universities, homes of Ukrainians”.
Monday’s attacks seemingly proved Zelenskyy’s point, and came ahead of a meeting of western countries on Wednesday to co-ordinate Ukrainian weapon supplies, and a gathering of Nato defence ministers in Brussels on Thursday.
Both meetings are expected to focus on how to speed up arms supplies and ensure that the weapons sent are the most effective and useful for the country’s armed forces.
“It’s time to give Ukraine ALL the weapons she needs to fully defend her people, land, sea and sky against the genocidal aggression of Putin’s terrorist state,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister.
But Justin Bronk, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London, said it was “only a slight exaggeration to say that there are not enough air defence systems in the world to provide total protection to all of Ukraine from air attack”.
“In the end, it’s about balancing priorities between protecting civilian areas or the soldiers fighting on the front lines.”
Russia’s increasing use of the Shahed drones is a further complication. Cheap, relatively small and able to fly long distances, multiple drones can be launched at the same time to create a swarm effect that is harder to combat using sophisticated air defence systems.
At the same time, because they are slower and low flying, and often use commercially available technology, they can be jammed electronically and shot down with old-fashioned radar-led anti-aircraft guns or even regular weapons. Ukraine said it had shot down one Shahed drone over the weekend using a large-calibre machine gun.