Russia and Ukraine push for weapons to fight an escalating aerial war
By Marc Santora
Even as Ukrainian officials celebrate the arrival of more advanced Western air-defense systems and claim growing success at shooting down Russian rockets and drones, they are warning that Moscow is on the hunt for new long-range weapons against which Kyiv’s forces have little defense — specifically, ballistic missiles from Iran.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force said the Kremlin had plans to buy Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles from Iran, which the Ukrainians say will almost certainly be used to continue to target civilian energy infrastructure that has already been battered by barrages of attacks in recent weeks.
“We have information that they achieved some agreement on delivery,” the spokesman, Yurii Ihnat, said at a news conference Monday.
Iran has denied plans to sell ballistic missiles to Russia. But Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence directorate, has said delivery of Iranian missiles could happen by the end of November.
“It’s a serious threat because Iranian missiles, unlike Russian ones, are quite high-precision, very high-speed, and those features have been battle-proven,” he said in a recent interview with the War Zone, an online publication focused on military matters.
Ukrainian officials have declined to disclose details about the number of missiles that Russia may be seeking to acquire. But Ihnat said Ukraine was in discussions with its Western allies over how to counter the threat.
“It is theoretically possible to shoot them down, but it is actually very difficult to do this with the capabilities we have at our disposal today,” he noted.
One possibility would involve destroying ballistic missiles at their launch, he said. But for that, Ukraine would probably need longer-range weapons of the type that the United States and other allies have so far been reluctant to provide, fearful that Ukraine could use them to hit military targets inside Russia and possibly escalate the conflict.
The missiles that Moscow is seeking to acquire from Iran are similar to the Iskander missiles that Russia has used since the outset of its invasion in February. Western military analysts and Ukrainian officials say Russia is turning to Iran because its stocks of Iskanders have been severely depleted.
Russia has other weapons at its disposal, including Kalibr cruise missiles and Iranian-made attack drones. Ukraine has gotten better at shooting those down, employing portable air-defense systems, attack jets and a mix of Soviet-era air defenses and newly arriving Western systems.
Ultramodern German IRIS-T air-defense systems — so new that they had never before been used on the battlefield — were extremely effective in shooting down missiles fired by Russia during a wave of strikes at the end of October, according to the Ukrainian military. And Ukrainian officials announced Monday the arrival of the first two of eight advanced surface-to-air missile systems, or NASAMS, promised by the Pentagon. Each is equipped with radar-guided missiles with a range of up to 30 miles.
However, these advanced systems are not designed to defend against ballistic missiles — and are expensive to use against relatively cheap drones.
Ukrainian officials say they believe that Moscow will continue to try to overwhelm its defenses with sheer volume, as it did Oct. 31, when Russia fired approximately 55 missiles targeting critical infrastructure. Only five got through the defenses, but they inflicted considerable damage on energy structures, forcing Ukraine to ration power in order to prevent a collapse of the electricity grid.
The Royal United Services Institute, a London-based research body, wrote in a report this week that while the strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure were “unlikely to change Russia’s battlefield fortunes,” they were “causing major problems and generating new requirements for Ukrainian air-defense equipment.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said his country was “gradually moving toward our goal” of completely defending its skies.
“As of today, we can say that the recent escalation of Russian missile and drone terror has only resulted in the world responding — responding with new aid to Ukraine,” he said in his overnight address Monday.