Russia’s use of hypersonic missiles against Ukraine appears to mark a shift in strategy in response to its losses on the battlefield, one that may signal a new phase of the war while serving to show the world its abundant firepower.
Western military analysts point to President Vladimir Putin’s ground campaign getting bogged down, with Russian troops failing to achieve their initial objectives and underestimating the scale of Ukraine’s resistance.
They say the result is likely to be increased use of artillery bombardments, causing even more civilian casualties.
“Ukrainian forces have defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war,” the Institute for the Study of War said in its latest assessment, posted Saturday afternoon in Washington. It cited Russia’s original aim as seizing Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, and other major cities to topple President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government.
But rather than making a cease-fire more likely, it said that satellite images showing Russia troops digging in around Kyiv and elsewhere suggest a stalemate that “will likely be very violent and bloody, especially if it protracts.”
The signs of a shifting military strategy come as President Joe Biden prepares to travel to Europe to rally further support for Ukraine. The U.S. agreed to supply Ukraine with drones, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles, small arms and ammunition, adding to weapons that have already helped “inflict dramatic losses on Russian forces.”
On Saturday, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that its military had used hypersonic “Kinzhal,” or dagger, missiles the previous day to destroy an underground weapons cache in the southwest of Ukraine.
Then again on Sunday, Russia said that it fired the missiles to destroy a fuel depot in the Mykolaiv region. Authorities there issued an air-raid warning early Sunday for about an hour.
While neither strike was confirmed by Ukraine, a senior official said that Ukrainian cities were being targeted with more destructive artillery, including the Kinzhal missiles, “due to failures in the offensive.”
The comment by Mykhailo Podolyak, a presidential adviser, was the first official response from Ukraine to Russia’s claims that it fired the missiles twice in three days. If verified, the strikes would mark the first use of the nuclear-capable advanced weapons system in the war.
“Russian operations have changed,” the U.K.’s Chief of Defence Intelligence, Lieutenant General Jim Hockenhull, told reporters on Friday. He cited “a strategy of attrition” that will involve “the reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower.”
“This will result in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and intensify the humanitarian crisis,” he said.
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians, and says that it is hitting military assets with high precision.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Putin may be deploying hypersonic missiles to regain momentum in the invasion of Ukraine.
“I would not see it as a game changer,” Austin said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “I think the reason that he’s resorting to using these types of weapons is because he’s trying to reestablish some momentum.”
With the war now in its 25th day, the United Nations said that 10 million people have been uprooted, including those who have fled the country and others displaced within Ukraine. As casualties mount, Zelenskiy renewed his offer to negotiate with Putin, saying even the slightest chance of a negotiated settlement must be seized.
“I am ready for negotiations with him,” Zelenskiy told CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria in an interview broadcast Sunday. “We have to use any format, any chance in order to have the possibility of negotiating, the possibility of talking to Putin. But if these attempts fail that would mean that this is a Third World War.”
The Kinzhal, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, flies 10 times faster than the speed of sound, or more than 2 miles per second, Putin said when he announced the system in an annual state-of-the-nation address in 2018. It was among several latest-generation strategic weapons that Putin said could overcome any U.S. defenses.
Hypersonic missiles travel at lower trajectories than conventional ballistic missiles, making them harder to detect. They can also maneuver to evade missile defense systems.
A U.K. defense intelligence update said that as its forces bog down on the ground, Russia has increased “indiscriminate shelling of urban areas.”
“It is likely Russia will continue to use its heavy firepower to support assaults on urban areas as it looks to limit its own already considerable losses, at the cost of further civilian casualties,” the U.K. said.
–With assistance from Ros Krasny and Tony Czuczka.
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