Russia’s Misguided Missile War Against Ukraine
KYIV, Ukraine — On the afternoon of Sunday, June 26, only hours after Russian cruise missiles struck an apartment block and a kindergarten in a residential district of Kyiv, life’s normal rhythms continued throughout the city. On the sidewalk outside the National Military History Museum, pedestrians meandered past a collection of destroyed Russian military hardware.
A woman pushed a stroller beside the burnt and twisted remains of a Russian armored personnel carrier. A little hand stuck out from the stroller’s seat, pointing to the charred hulk of what had once been a Russian war machine. A few feet away, a man led his young son up to the disembodied tail section of a Russian Su-25 attack plane. The boy smiled while the father snapped a few photos.
Kyiv remains scarred in the many places where Russian missiles have struck. Apartment buildings, a kindergarten, a shopping mall. The threat is real. It can come unannounced and at any moment. In late February and early March, many of Kyiv’s civilians lived underground during the worst of the bombardments. Today, life goes on.
When the air raid sirens sounded again on the afternoon of June 26, people at Kyiv’s Bessarabs’ka Square hardly seemed to notice. Diners seated at sidewalk terraces continued with their meals. Waiters delivered food and drink orders. A group of teenagers smoked cigarettes and chitchatted. From this correspondent’s point of view, no one sought shelter.
To an outside observer unaccustomed to the daily pulse of Russia’s full-scale war, this scene might seem a bit jarring. Why aren’t people instantly running for safety? you may be inclined to wonder. Each air raid alert, after all, signals a Russian missile or warplane flying within Ukrainian airspace. That wailing sound signals the possibility — albeit a small one — of random death. Even so, most Ukrainians have learned to carry on about their lives in spite of this new and terrible reality.
The fact is, if you reacted to every air raid alert, your life would remain suspended in an intolerable limbo. You wouldn’t be able to enjoy a solid night’s sleep, or a straight day of work. You would always exist on a razor’s edge, ready to drop whatever it is you’re doing in order to sit idly in an underground shelter until the all-clear is given.
You simply cannot live that way for long, and so most Ukrainians have learned to tolerate the missile threat as the new normal of wartime life.
“I understand the danger, but I still have to go to work and earn a living,” said Andriy Pasichnyk, a sporting goods shop owner who lives in Kyiv.
“We know that Russia is trying to scare us, but the missiles won’t last forever, and we have to learn to live with them,” Pasichnyk told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Intent To Kill?
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russia has fired more than 2,500 missiles at Ukraine since the full-scale war began on Feb. 24. Of that number, Russia has launched 626 cruise missiles into Ukrainian territory since Feb. 24, Ukraine’s general staff recently reported.
Overall, the pace of Russia’s missile attacks has recently surged. During the second half of June alone, Russia fired 202 missiles at Ukraine, up from 120 during the first half of the month.
According to multiple news reports, the US intelligence community believes that Russia’s guided missiles have a success rate of less than 50%. One US intelligence official told Newsweek that two out every three Russian missiles either miss their target or fail at launch.
That high rate of failure is compounded by the fact that Russia is increasingly relying on less accurate, Soviet-era missiles as its stocks of more modern weapons continue to be depleted. More than half of Russia’s late June missile attacks were made by those older weapons, Ukrainian defense officials said.
“The enemy’s targets remain military facilities, critical infrastructure and industry, and transport networks. At the same time, the civilian population is suffering significant losses due to [poorly targeted] strikes,” Ukrainian Brig. Gen. Oleksii Hromov told reporters on June 30, adding that Russian missiles hit 68 civilian sites during the second half of June.
“To carry out [missile] strikes, the enemy in more than 50 percent [of cases] is using missiles from the Soviet reserve, which are not sufficiently precise. As a result, civilian buildings are being hit,” Hromov said.
Most Western and Ukrainian experts agree that Russia’s long-range missile attacks are generally meant to interrupt Ukraine’s wartime economy and the flow of Western weapons to the front lines. Some also echo Hromov’s assessment that the recent uptick in strikes on civilian infrastructure may, for the most part, be the result of sloppy targeting rather than a deliberate effort by Russia to kill Ukrainian civilians.
The overall goal of Russia’s missile attacks is probably to “make the war less sustainable for Ukraine,” Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who specializes in Russia’s armed forces, told Coffee or Die.
Lee said he was “not sure” if the Russian missile strikes are “deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilian buildings, or if their missiles are just not that accurate.”
“I think many of the strikes are intended to destroy or damage industrial facilities, not just defense industry,” Lee said. “It seems they’re trying to damage Ukraine’s economy, possibly in an effort to force Ukraine to make concessions.”
Other defense experts say Russia may be purposefully targeting civilian targets in order to sap civilian morale and force concessions from Kyiv.
“I think [Russia] is deliberately targeting civilians in particular cases. They understand how this affects our society and might think that after some horror it will push the government to compromise with Russia,” said Alexander Khara, a Ukrainian defense expert and deputy chair of the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies.
As of July 4, the United Nations reported 11,152 civilian casualties in Ukraine since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. Of those casualties, 4,889 people were killed. The UN report added that the actual number of civilian casualties is likely much higher.
Overall, Russia’s full-scale war has also inflicted roughly $104 billion in damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure, according to an estimate by Molfar, a Ukrainian open-source intelligence investigation site. Among its targets, Russia has attacked key agricultural infrastructure across Ukraine, “including grain silos, railways, food warehouses, and ports,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported on June 15.
“Continued attacks on Ukraine’s agricultural production will not only deteriorate food insecurity in Ukraine, but will also exacerbate food insecurity worldwide,” the report’s authors warned.
To date, Russia’s long-range missile strikes against Ukraine have failed to destroy Ukrainian military command and control nodes, to significantly reduce the transport of Ukrainian soldiers and weapons to the front lines, or to cripple Ukraine’s economy. Russian missile strikes have also markedly failed to damage civilian morale. Recent polling suggests that Ukrainian civilians remain overwhelmingly confident that their country will prevail.
A poll conducted from June 18 to 19 by the Ukrainian social research group, Rating, found that 93% of Ukrainians “believe that Ukraine will be able to repel Russia’s attack.” Of that number, 57% of respondents believed it would take more than six months to win the war.
The Rating poll was conducted before some of Russia’s most recent gains in eastern Ukraine. Even so, its findings match those of a separate poll conducted in June by The Wall Street Journal and the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.
After polling more than 1,000 Ukrainians to gauge the national mood, the joint WSJ-NORC study found that 89% of Ukrainians were unwilling to cede territory to Russia for the sake of a peace deal. Moreover, some 78% of respondents supported Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s handling of the war.
Early air power theorists argued that targeting an enemy country’s industry and infrastructure could destroy its industrial capacity to wage war. That theory was later extended to include targeting civilian population centers to damage morale. In his 1921 book, The Command of the Air, Italian air warfare theorist Giulio Douhet wrote:
“No longer can areas exist in which life can be lived in safety and tranquility, nor can the battlefield any longer be limited to actual combatants. On the contrary, the battlefield will be limited only by the boundaries of the nations at war, and all of their citizens will become combatants, since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy.”
Douhet’s theories partly influenced America’s application of air power in World War II. According to a 1945 study by the US Strategic Bombing Survey, “Strategic bombing was the major means by which the Allies were able to strike a direct blow at the morale of German civilians.”
Yet, it wasn’t until the development of precision-guided munitions that air power’s initial promise was finally realized. Subsequently, the US military’s performance during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 spurred Russia’s post-Soviet military leaders to rethink some of their established doctrines.
In his 2020 book, The Russian Understanding of War, Oscar Jonsson wrote:
“After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the pre-conditions for military thought in the Russian Federation entered a period of significant flux. The Russian Federation inherited a vast military machine with Soviet materiel, manpower, and doctrines. From the outset, the Gulf War shocked Russian theorists and showed how numerically inferior but technologically superior US troops easily beat the Iraqi army, which relied on Soviet materiel and doctrines.”
“Desert Storm was a real shock to the Russian military and political elite. They invested a lot to acquire precision strike capabilities,” Khara told Coffee or Die.
Regarding Russia’s use of missiles against Ukraine, Khara added, “It was a certain ‘Gestalt closure’ to employ such capabilities in peer-to-peer conflict rather than at a shooting range, like in Syria.”
Along that line of thinking, Russia’s missile campaign against Ukraine may reflect Moscow’s faulty, initial assumptions about the utility of its missiles in combat against a modern adversary. Thus, as the war drags on, Russia’s use of missiles is drifting further and further from the high-precision strike paradigm established by US forces during Desert Storm.
At the full-scale war’s outset, Russia missile strikes were meant to be part of a “shock and awe” campaign “aimed at breaking our will to resist, showing off their capabilities to the world, and, as a military purpose, to degrade our air force and air defense capabilities,” Khara said.
“Then, it was mostly military targets and critical infrastructure aimed at denying our defense forces the supplies they needed to operate,” Khara added. “When it turned to be a war of attrition, [Russia] started to target more and more civilian infrastructure and industry.”