Russia’s hypersonic missile attack on Ukraine highlights Western vulnerability


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

But rather than impress some of President Vladimir Putin’s hard-line critics — the pro-war hawks who for months have pressed for tougher measures to defeat Ukraine — the use of the Kinzhals only raised questions about the potential waste of some of Russia’s most advanced and 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 some power failures. Overall, however, the barrage appeared to make no difference in the trajectory of the war.

“As a result, the electricity was lost for several hours in a number of Ukrainian cities and trains were late,” Grey Zone, a Telegram channel associated with Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, noted sardonically.

Globally, Russia’s use of the hypersonic missiles — “Kinzhal” means dagger in Russian — renewed alarm over the Kremlin’s sophisticated arsenal, and it highlighted that Putin possesses difficult-to-intercept, nuclear-capable weapons that the United States and its allies do not yet have.

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

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Ukrainian military officials said their air defenses, including Western-provided systems, managed to shoot down 34 cruise missiles Thursday, but they admitted having no capacity to intercept the Kh-47 Kinzhal missiles.

Russia has other nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons, but its flaunting of the Kinzhal in battle adds to the pressure on Washington as a hypersonic arms race heats up, one in which Washington has catching up to do, with both Russia and China.

The Kinzhal is an air-launched missile based on the design of Russia’s Iskander missiles, but Moscow has been testing two other hypersonic weapons — the Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile, which has reportedly been deployed since 2019, and the Tsirkon, launched from the ground 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 about 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 “unparalleled in terms of tactical and technical specifications. We can safely assume that certain items will remain unmatched for a long time ahead.”

Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said: “They’re seen as a priority weapons category by most major nations.” Kaushal added that hypersonic weapons are difficult to intercept because of their speed, altitude and maneuverability.

“They are useful for some things, stressing air defenses, striking high-value targets, but they’re also a very expensive capability to develop,” he said. “They’re certainly not a silver bullet capability, but they are a significant capability.”

Kaushal said that the weapon was expensive, and that Russia’s stocks of Kinzhals were probably limited, although there are no reliable estimates on the number Moscow has or how fast it can produce them.

“Why they used the Kinzhal is an interesting question, because I can’t see an obvious logic to doing so,” Kaushal said. “It’s fairly difficult to know at this point what was the logic behind using it against the target they chose.” Thursday’s attack fit into Moscow’s campaign of targeting energy facilities and infrastructure, he said, but this could easily have been accomplished with other, less expensive weapons.

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Some analysts and commentators speculated that the use of the hypersonic weapons was designed to convince Putin’s domestic audience of his determination to hit hard and defeat Ukraine, as he readies the nation for a drawn-out war with high casualties.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin likely used these scarce missiles in fruitless attacks to appease the Russian pro-war and ultranationalist communities, which have overwhelmingly called on him to retaliate for the Bryansk Oblast incident on March 2,” the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank, wrote on Thursday.

If that was Putin’s goal, however, he appeared to fall short.

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 Russia’s November strikes on energy facilities, and instead caused limited power outages and no total blackout.

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

“The Kinzhal does not waste energy to ascend. A jet fighter lifts it up to the air stream, 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. “It’s released in this air and the engines engage, they start and fly, already gaining enormous speed. It doesn’t lose speed in order to ascend. It doesn’t expend energy and resources. And then, flying at high speed to its target, it quickly descends.”

He said intercepting the missiles with the defensive systems Ukraine has “is unrealistic.”

Andriy Yusov, spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, estimated Thursday that Russia probably had about 40 of the missiles.

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

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Russia’s Defense Ministry called Thursday’s attack a “massive retaliatory strike” in response to the incursion from Ukraine into the Bryansk region of western Russia, in which Russian authorities said two civilians were killed.

A group called the Russian Volunteer Corps asserted responsibility for the incident, and its leader told the Financial Times that he had tacit support from Ukrainian authorities.

The six Kinzhals were among 81 missiles of various sophistication and cost that Russia fired Thursday, breaching Ukrainian air defenses and hitting energy facilities and infrastructure. To Ukraine, it 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, while 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 requested $225.5 million for hypersonic defense, according to a February paper by the Congressional Research Service.

But according to Michael D. Griffin, former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the United States will not 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, call it a quasi-ballistic missile or maneuvering air-launched ballistic missile.

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

Russia unveiled its Kinzhal missile in 2018, after advances in the United States’ air defenses that Moscow feared would make Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete.

“The United States is permitting constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of antiballistic missiles, improving their quality, and creating new missile launching areas,” Putin said in 2018. “If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential, meaning that all of our missiles could simply be intercepted.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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2023-03-10 23:42:00