Russia’s hypersonic missile attack on Ukraine highlights Western vulnerability

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RIGA, Latvia — Russia fired half a dozen of its rare hypersonic Kinzhal missiles at Ukraine on Thursday, part of a wider barrage that killed six people and which the Russian Defense Ministry described as a revenge for an incursion into western Russia last week by a far-right Russian nationalist group fighting alongside Ukraine during the war.

But rather than impress some of President Vladimir Putin’s die-hard critics – the pro-war hawks who for months have called for tougher measures to defeat Ukraine – the use of Kinzhals has only raise questions about the potential waste of some of the most advanced and advanced in Russia. expensive weaponry.

Thursday’s attack killed five people in a village in western Ukraine and a sixth person in the central Dnipropetrovsk region, and injured several others, while strikes on infrastructure caused power outages. fluent. Overall, however, the barrage seemed to make no difference to the trajectory of the war.

“As a result, electricity was cut off for several hours in a number of Ukrainian cities and trains were running late,” Gray Zone, a Telegram channel associated with Russian mercenary group Wagner, noted wryly.

Globally, Russia’s use of hypersonic missiles – “Kinzhal” means dagger in Russian – has raised alarm over the Kremlin’s sophisticated arsenal, and underscored that Putin has nuclear-capable weapons that are difficult to intercept that the United States and its allies do not possess. Again.

Hypersonic missiles are highly maneuverable weapons that travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5, more than five times the speed of sound, making them extremely difficult to intercept. The United States and China are also developing hypersonic weapons. After Russia first used them in Ukraine in March last year, President Biden called the missiles “almost unstoppable”.

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Ukrainian military officials said their air defenses, including Western-supplied systems, managed to shoot down 34 cruise missiles on Thursday, but they admitted to not having the capability to intercept Kh-47 Kinzhal missiles.

Russia has other nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons, but its display of the Kinzhal in combat is adding pressure on Washington as a hypersonic arms race heats up, a race in which Washington has some catching up to do, both with Russia and China.

The Kinzhal is an air-launched missile based on Russia’s Iskander missiles, but Moscow has tested two other hypersonic weapons – the Avangard, a hypersonic glider vehicle launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile, which has reportedly been deployed since 2019, and the Tsirkon, launched from land or warships and submarines, which went into production in 2021, according to the Tass news agency.

In 2018 Putin boasted that the Kinzhal had a range of around 1,250 miles and could travel at 10 times the speed of sound. “Nobody else has them yet,” he said. In 2021, he told a military forum that the Kinzhal and other weapons were “unprecedented in terms of tactical and technical specifications. We can safely assume that some elements will remain unmatched for a long time. »

Sidharth Kaushal, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said: “They are considered a priority weapon category by most major nations.” Kaushal added that hypersonic weapons are difficult to intercept due to their speed, altitude and maneuverability.

“They’re useful for certain things, emphasizing air defenses, hitting high-value targets, but they’re also a very expensive capability to develop,” he said. “They’re definitely not a miracle ability, but they’re an important ability.”

Kaushal said the weapon was expensive and Russian stocks of Kinzhals were likely limited, although there are no reliable estimates of how many Moscow has or how quickly it can produce them.

“Why did they use the Kinzhal is an interesting question, because I don’t see any obvious logic in doing so,” Kaushal said. “It’s pretty hard to know at this point what the logic was behind using it against their chosen target.” Thursday’s attack is part of Moscow’s campaign to target energy facilities and infrastructure, he said, but it could easily have been accomplished with other, cheaper weapons.

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Some analysts and commentators have speculated that the use of hypersonic weapons was designed to convince Putin’s domestic audience of his determination to strike hard and defeat Ukraine as he prepares the country for an endless war with many losses.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin likely used these rare missiles in unsuccessful attacks to appease Russia’s pro-war and ultranationalist communities, which overwhelmingly called on him to retaliate for the March 2 incident in Bryansk Oblast,” said the Institute for the Study of War. a US-based think tank, wrote on Thursday.

If that was Putin’s goal, however, he seemed to fail.

A pro-Kremlin Russian propaganda outlet on Telegram, Readovka explains, complained that the “most powerful strike in recent times” was not as devastating as some of the November Russian strikes on energy facilities, and said instead caused limited power outages and no total blackouts.

Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force Command, said on Friday that Russia had so far used around 20 Kinzhal missiles since its invasion a year ago and probably possessed around 50. “It flies really fast,” Ihnat said. “It can be detected [but] the speed is very high.

“The Kinzhal does not waste energy to climb. A jet fighter lifts it up into the airstream, up to the upper layers of the atmosphere where the air is thin,” Ihnat said, referring to the lower resistance levels at very high altitudes. “He’s dropped into that air and the engines kick in, they start up and fly, already gaining tremendous speed. It does not lose speed to climb. It does not expend energy and resources. And then, flying at high speed towards its target, it descends rapidly.

He said intercepting the missiles with the defensive systems Ukraine has “is not realistic”.

Andriy Yusov, spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, estimated on Thursday that Russia likely possessed around 40 of the missiles.

Although many remain, the use of the Kinzhals demonstrated Moscow’s willingness to deploy a weapon that Ukraine cannot shoot down and that Russia could direct against high-value targets in the future.

To see Russia’s secret anti-war art: Meet at a bus stop. In the dark. Phones off.

Russia’s Defense Ministry called Thursday’s attack a “massive retaliatory strike” in response to Ukraine’s incursion into Russia’s western Bryansk region, in which authorities Russians said two civilians had been killed.

A group called the Russian Volunteer Corps claimed responsibility for the incident and its leader told the Financial Times it had the tacit support of Ukrainian authorities.

The six Kinzhals were among 81 missiles of varying sophistication and cost that Russia fired on Thursday, breaching Ukrainian air defenses and hitting energy facilities and infrastructure. To Ukraine, he sent a warning about the potential consequences of strikes inside Russian territory, after a series of recent drone attacks and last week’s incursion.

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The United States, although lagging behind, is racing to match Russia and China and to build defenses against hypersonic weapons. The Pentagon’s budget request for hypersonic research is $4.7 billion in 2023, up from $3.8 billion in 2022, while the Missile Defense Agency has requested $225.5 million for defense hypersonic, according to a February article from the Congressional Research Service.

But according to Michael D. Griffin, former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the United States won’t have a defensive capability against hypersonic missiles until the mid-2020s at the earliest.

While Russia describes the Kinzhal as a hypersonic missile because it is maneuverable and travels faster than the speed of sound, many Western military analysts, including Kaushal, refer to them as quasi-ballistic missiles or launch ballistic missiles. air.

Putin said last month that Russia would continue mass production of Kinzhals and begin mass deliveries of Tsirkon Sea-launched hypersonic missiles this year.

Russia unveiled its Kinzhal missile in 2018, after advances in US air defenses that Moscow feared would render Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete.

“The United States is allowing constant and uncontrolled growth in the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality and creating new missile launch zones,” Putin said in 2018. “If we do nothing, it will eventually lead to devaluation complete. of Russia’s nuclear potential, which means that all of our missiles could simply be intercepted.

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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