Russia Doubles Down on Its Failed Air Campaign

In recent days, Russia has significantly escalated its air and missile raids against civilian targets in Ukraine, acts that showcase the cynicism and moral depravity of Vladimir Putin’s regime and its so-called special military operation. From a strategic perspective, though, these attacks will have little effect on Ukraine’s campaign to liberate its territory still under Russian occupation. Rather, they are a continuation of an air and missile campaign that has already failed to further the Kremlin’s war aims in any tangible way. These attacks are instead likely to backfire, steeling Ukraine’s resolve and prompting greater support from the West.

While the situation is ongoing, Russia appears to have launched well over 150 missiles and drones since October 10. We have seen a multi-vector attack, with projectiles fired from Russia, Belarus, the Black Sea, and occupied Crimea. These salvos have included some of Russia’s more modern missiles, like the sea-launched 3M-14 Kalibr cruise missile and the air-launched Kh-101. However, the lion’s share appears to be loitering munitions imported from Iran, or weapons not fit for purpose such as S-300 air defense interceptors repurposed for striking ground targets. A portion of the missiles have been stopped by Ukrainian air defenses, but many are finding their targets.

Russia has mostly targeted Ukraine’s civil infrastructure, such as water and electrical power services. Power outages have been reported across much of Ukraine, though efforts to restore power are seeing some success. Other attacks have indiscriminately targeted civilian areas, including hospitals, parks, and residential areas. Putin has characterized the attacks as retaliation for the partial destruction of the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to Russia. Due to its scale, however, Russia may have planned the operation prior to Kerch, merely accelerating the date of its execution.

This spate of missile strikes represents the largest coordinated air offensive since Russia’s initial invasion. In its first wave of strikes in February, Russia focused its fire on Ukrainian airfields and air defenses. In so doing, Russia inflicted some damage but failed to permanently ground Ukraine’s air force, and Ukraine’s fighter jets continue to operate today. Ukraine’s air defense network also survived this barrage and continues to deny Russia air dominance over Ukraine, which has directly contributed to Ukraine’s battlefield success. The factors contributing to Russia’s failure at this early stage are numerous, including high mechanical failure rates, poor intelligence and targeting, and insufficient capacity for the scale of operation it attempted.

After its initial failure to knock out Ukraine’s air force and air defenses, Russia shifted to launching missile attacks against Ukraine’s energy and transportation sectors and blatant terror attacks against civilians. Attacks on oil refineries caused nationwide fuel shortages over the summer, though the situation appears to have improved. Russia also attempted to disrupt the flow of military aid from the West to Ukraine through attacks on Ukraine’s rail infrastructure and related facilities. The effects of this effort were also short-lived, as Ukraine repaired and adapted its lines of communication.

As Russian stockpiles of its more advanced missiles have dwindled, it has increasingly relied on less capable munitions, such as decades-old antiship missiles and air defense interceptors repurposed for attacking ground targets. While these weapons are ill suited for striking hardened military targets, Russia has employed them in indiscriminate attacks against civilian areas, including attacks on a shopping mall and a hostel for the hearing impaired, along with a general bombardment of residential areas. Ukraine has also reported Russian missile attacks against civilian economic targets, such as agricultural facilities. There have even been reports of Russia targeting open wheat fields with artillery to set crop fires ahead of harvest.

As has been the case with Russia’s air campaign thus far, the recent waves of missiles are unlikely to change the dynamics of the war on the ground. Few, if any, of the areas or facilities that Russia chose to target had direct military value and will therefore have no discernable impact on the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ ability to continue pushing back Russian forces in Donbas and Kherson. Western support will continue to flow, possibly at an even greater volume than before. The United States and Germany are already rushing more advanced NASAMS and IRIS-T air defenses to Ukraine in response to the strikes. Enhancing Ukraine’s air defense with these kinds of modern systems will be imperative to thinning out future Russian missile attacks and will help Ukraine maintain its civil infrastructure into winter. The United States and NATO have for decades underinvested in air defense, and the war in Ukraine illustrates the need for more robust counters against cruise missiles.

Putin may hope that by increasing the misery of the Ukrainian people, President Zelensky may be more inclined to negotiate a settlement that allows Russia to retain some stolen territory in the east or Crimea. This is unlikely as well. A quick look at history shows that the strategic bombing of civilians is an ineffective way to achieve a political aim. Putin may be trying to show strength, but he is broadcasting weakness and desperation.

Ian Williams is a fellow in the International Security Program and deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ian Williams

Ian Williams

Former Fellow, International Security Program and Deputy Director, Missile Defense Project