Faced with an endless barrage, Ukraine’s air defenses are withering

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This is what a year of Russian missile attacks on Ukraine looks like. Ukrainian air defenses used to intercept most of the missiles, but more and more missiles have gotten through in recent months.

April 2023

Intercepted
Russian missile

Be able to

June

July

August

September

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

January 2024

February

March

April

The data, from a New York Times analysis of daily Ukrainian military reports, shows a major shift: Ukraine is increasingly unable to stop Russian missiles, crippling its ability to protect key infrastructure and leaving cities in darkness is poured.

Russian airstrikes have hit critical Ukrainian weapons factories and railways used to supply the front. They have also attacked Ukrainian troops on the front lines.

Ukraine has made desperate pleas for more air defense from its Western allies as the country runs low on vital supplies. But that’s only part of the problem. Russia has also changed its tactics, firing larger barrages that overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses and faster missiles that are harder to shoot down.

Some attacks appear designed to make life difficult for civilians by bombing urban centers, damaging power stations and cutting off electricity to tens of thousands of residents, as was the case last week.

New Western aid will help. After prolonged political wrangling, the United States approved a $60 billion aid package last month, and more air defense missiles have already been sent as part of the package.

But it could take months before enough weapons arrive to significantly strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses. And some problems, such as Russia’s use of more advanced missiles, are likely to persist even after aid is delivered.

The Times analyzed hundreds of statements released by the Ukrainian air force over the past year detailing the number and types of missiles fired by Russia and intercepted by Ukraine during that period. Although the data cannot be independently verified, experts who study the war say it is broadly reliable.

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Much of Ukraine’s success last May, during a new period of heavy Russian missile attacks, was due to its newly strengthened defenses: the country had just received its first Patriot system.

Considered one of the United States’ best air defense weapons, the Patriot features a powerful radar system and mobile launchers that fire missiles at incoming projectiles. Last May, Ukraine said it used the system to shoot down a Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missile, one of the most advanced conventional weapons in the Kremlin’s arsenal.

The arrival of the Patriot system and other Western weapons raised hopes that Ukrainian cities would now be better protected. His allies have done so so far as long as Ukraine with at least three Patriot systems and at least 15 other air defense systems.

But this winter, when Russia increased its missile attacks again, Ukraine was unable to stop them.

Russia had improved its tactics by firing larger and more complex barrages, including cruise missiles, ballistic and hypersonic missiles. To confuse and overwhelm Ukrainian defenses, Russia often begins by launching attack drones, followed by waves of missiles fired from different locations.

In particular, Russia has increased the use of weapons that have long been difficult for Ukraine to intercept, such as the Iskander-M ballistic missile and the Kh-22 missile.

But Ukrainian commanders say there is a more fundamental reason for Kiev’s falling interception rates: a growing ammunition shortage.

Last month, Russia destroyed the largest power plant in the Kiev region, an area that is one of the most protected in Ukraine, thanks to the presence of Patriot batteries.

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“Why? Because we had zero missiles,” said President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine an interview with PBS NewsHour. “We ran out of missiles.”

Russia, on the other hand, fired 11 missiles at the power plant, he said. Ukrainian air defenses shot down the first seven but had no choice but to let the next four pass, he said.

That’s the kind of decision that ammunition-shortened Ukraine must increasingly make today, even if it could mean destruction and death for its citizens, military experts say.

“It’s the new rules of engagement,” said Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Sometimes you have to let things go. And you may have to protect your armed forces over your population, for example.”

Major Ilya Yevlash, a spokesman for the Ukrainian air force, said Russia had so many S-300 missiles that it was worthless to try to intercept them all.

“We cannot afford to deplete our invaluable stock of air defense missiles,” he said. “If we try to shoot them, we won’t have enough patriots.”

Ukraine has been much more successful in intercepting attack drones. Data from the Ukrainian Air Force shows that it has downed about 80 percent of them in the past year, almost all of them Shahed drones. That’s because they are slower than missiles and can be shot down with less advanced weapons, such as anti-aircraft guns.

But the number of drones intercepted by Ukraine has declined as Russia has modified its drone fleet, changing flight patterns, increasing speed and painting them black to evade detection.

Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst at Rochan Consulting in Poland, said large and slow Russian reconnaissance drones had recently been able to operate behind Ukrainian lines around the cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhia.

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“If you cannot shoot them down, this obviously raises an important question about the Ukrainian ability to provide an air defense umbrella,” he said.

Ukraine’s need to assess its air defense systems leaves some cities far more vulnerable than others. And Russia has taken full advantage of this situation in recent months, hitting cities and regions that do not enjoy the protection of patriots like Kiev.

Since December, Russian forces have focused mainly on a large swath of land stretching from Kharkiv in the northeast to Odessa in the south. Ukraine’s western regions, which were spared heavier bombing for much of the war, are also increasingly affected.

Minimum number of days each region was targeted by Russian attacks

Note: Russian missile and drone attacks reported by the Ukrainian Air Force are shown. This does not include artillery bombardments on the front line.

Because air defenses are limited, Major Yevlash says, the Ukrainian air force uses them in “non-standard ways.” It moves them around the country to adapt to Moscow’s changing tactics and reduce the chances of the weapons being spotted and destroyed by Russian forces.

But that won’t be enough to close the gaps in a country the size of Texas, said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow for air power and technology at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Ukrainian commanders must continually make extremely difficult choices between defending critical national infrastructure, key military facilities, cities and troops on and near the front lines,” Mr. Bronk said.

For a Ukrainian unit of drone fighters in the battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, the lack of defense systems has often left them watching helplessly as Russian missiles hurtle overhead toward the city.

“There are missiles that our forces cannot intercept with what we have, and they fly whenever they want,” said Barber, 23, a member of the unit, using only his first name in accordance with military rules. “We need patriots for that.”

Methodology

To compile a dataset of Russian missile and drone attacks, The Times collected every statement the Ukrainian Air Force posted on its website Facebook page from April 1, 2023 to April 30, 2024. We used GPT-4, an AI model, to count and classify Russian missiles or drones reported by Ukraine, including their type, the date they were fired, and whether they were intercepted. All data was manually checked to ensure it matched the original messages.

In a small number of statements, Ukraine described only how many missiles it had shot down, leaving out how many Russia had fired. In these cases, additional missiles may have been fired that were not recorded, and the interception rates shown may be slightly lower.

In the statements of the Ukrainian Air Force, similar missile types are often grouped together, for example ‘Kh-101/Kh-555/Kh-55 missiles’ and ‘S-300/S-400 missiles’. The analysis grouped missiles into types that Ukraine regularly describes together. In a small number of statements, Ukraine grouped together several missiles, for example “7 Iskander-M/S-300/S-400 missiles.” These missiles are included in the total number of missiles fired and intercepted, but not in the counts for individual missile types.

The number of days each region of Ukraine has been targeted by Russian missile and drone attacks should be considered the minimum, as some Ukrainian statements did not specify which region was targeted.

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