Russia’s airstrikes, intended to show force, reveal another weakness

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski.
A house destroyed by Russian shelling in Lezhyne near Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Oct. 12.

On Monday, Russia fired 84 missiles, many at Ukrainian civilian infrastructure targets, causing power outages in many cities. On Tuesday, Russia launched another 28 cruise missiles. And on Thursday, the Ukrainian Armed Forced General Staff said Russia had hit more than 40 settlements since the day before. In all, more than three dozen people were killed.

But no matter how many times Russia fires at Ukraine, pro-war Russian nationalists want more, even though targeting civilian infrastructure is potentially a war crime.

“It has to be done constantly, not just once but for two to five weeks to totally disable all their infrastructure, all thermal power stations, all heating and power stations, all power plants, all traction substations, all power lines, all railway hubs,” said Bogdan Bezpalko, a member of the Kremlin’s Council on Interethnic Relations.

“Then, Ukraine will descend into cold and darkness,” Bezpalko said on state television. “They won’t be able to bring in ammunition and fuel and then the Ukrainian army will turn into a crowd of armed men with chunks of iron.”

But the hawks, who are demanding publicly on TV broadcasts and on Telegram to know why Russia does not hit more high value targets, won’t like the answer: The Russian military appears to lack sufficient accurate missiles to sustain airstrikes at Monday’s tempo, according to Western military analysts.

“They are low on precision guided missiles,” said Konrad Muzyka, founder of Gdansk, Poland-based Rochan Consulting said, offering his assessment of Russia’s sporadic air attacks. “That is essentially the only explanation that I have.”

Even as NATO allies on Thursday said they would rush additional air defenses to Ukraine, the experts said the reason Russia had yet to knock out electricity and water service across the country was simple: it can’t.

Since May, Russia’s use of precision guided missiles (PGMs) has declined sharply, with analysts suggesting then that Russian stocks of such missiles may be low.

Tuesday’s attacks mainly used air-launched cruise missiles, which are slower than Iskander guided missiles and easier for Ukraine to shoot down, according to Muzyka. In March, the Pentagon reported that Russia’s air-launched cruise missiles have a failure rate of 20 to 60 percent.

“If Russia had a limitless supply of PGMs, I think that they would still strike civilian targets, because that’s what the Russian way of warfare is,” Muzyka said. He said analysts did not have confirmed information about Russian missile stocks or production levels, and judgments were based on the decline in usage of PGMs and Moscow’s greater reliance on less accurate missiles.

But a clue lies in Russia’s failure to destroy the kinds of targets that Ukraine is able to hit using U.S.-supplied HIMARS artillery.

“If we take a look at what HIMARS has done to Russian supply routes, and essentially their ability to sustain war, they’ve done massive damage to Russia’s posture in this war,” Muzyka said. “So technically, you know, if the Russians had access to a large stock of PGMS, they could probably inflict a similar damage to Ukrainian armed forces, but they haven’t.”

“They actually failed to,” he continued. “They even failed to interdict the main Ukrainian supply roads. They failed to destroy bridges, railway, railway intersections, and so on and so forth.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine.
Stray puppies in a school classroom that Russian occupying forces used as a base in the Kherson region of Ukraine on Oct. 6

Russian President Vladimir Putin is juggling so many military problems that some Western analysts are already predicting Russia’s war will fail. Others say it remains too early to write Russia off, especially with hundreds of thousands of conscripted reinforcements potentially headed to the battlefield in coming weeks.

Since day one, Russia has sustained shocking levels of battlefield casualties, battering military morale. It has suffered repeated defeats, including the failure to take Kyiv, a retreat from Snake Island, the rout in Kharkiv and loss of Lyman, a strategic transit hub.

Ukrainian forces also continue to slowly recover territory in Kherson region, in their ongoing southern offensive.

Russia’s military mobilization also remains in shambles, with angry draftees posting videos online almost daily, complaining of insufficient training and poor equipment. Moscow police raided hostels and cafes on Tuesday to grab men and deliver them to mobilization points, and military recruitment is continuing in Russian prisons, according to independent Russian media site SOTA.

Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College London, wrote in a newsletter that Russia’s escalation of missile attacks on civilian targets Monday had achieved no clear military gain.

“Russia lacks the missiles to mount attacks of this sort often, as it is running out of stocks and the Ukrainians are claiming a high success rate in intercepting many of those already used,” Freedman wrote. “This is not therefore a new war-winning strategy but a sociopath’s tantrum.”

Putin’s “need to calm his critics also explains why he has lashed out against Ukrainian cities,” Freedman wrote. “The hard-liners have been demanding attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure for some time and they now have got what they wanted. But they will inevitably be disappointed with the results.”

“These attacks could well be repeated, because it is part of the mind-set of Putin and his generals that enemies can be forced to capitulate by such means,” he added. “But stocks of Kalibr and Iskander missiles are running low.”

Amid Russia’s military setbacks, striking at Ukraine’s power grid in recent days was designed to shock and terrify civilians, starve them of energy in the winter and break their will to resist, according to Maria Shagina, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.

One apparent goal of Russia’s strikes on six electrical substations in Lviv, western Ukraine, was to stop Ukraine exporting electricity to Europe, Shagina said. The strikes also crippled the city’s power supply.

“Now we’re seeing the escalation and weaponization of the critical infrastructure,” she said, adding that it was no accident that Russia had destroyed Ukraine’s capacity to export electricity to Europe at the same time Moscow has weaponized natural gas, cutting supplies to pressure European Union countries.

“There is some intensification of the war, in terms that Russia doesn’t hide even the fact that they have attacked civilian infrastructure, critical infrastructure,” Shagina added. “They’re trying to escalate the war as much as they can.”

Muzyka said Russia, ignoring international conventions, has consistently targeted civilian apartment blocks and infrastructure in two Chechen wars, in Syria and Ukraine.

“Definitely they focus on the power grid as a way of making civilian lives miserable,” he said. “For Russians, striking civilian areas, residential areas and anything that can potentially impact the lives of civilians is a military objective, because for Russia, the war is total.”

“Essentially what the Russians are trying to do is to wear down Ukrainians, decrease the morale, decrease the willingness to fight and from their point of view, hopefully increase the pressure on the Ukrainian government to enter negotiations with Russia,” he added.

Ukraine has asked Western allies for state of the art air defense systems to protect its civilians and vital infrastructure. But even as NATO pledged more help, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that getting those systems to Ukraine would take time.

“Unfortunately, the Western response is rather limited,” Shagina said, adding that Russia is trying “to use the full range of measures they can deploy against the West and Ukraine.”

But no matter how harsh the attacks, the hawks in Russia say it is still not enough.

Russian journalist Andrei Medvedev, a member of the Moscow city council, who runs a popular hard line nationalist pro-war Telegram channel, urged patience, saying the decision “to bomb Ukraine into the Middle Ages” had not yet been taken.

Another hawk, Alexander Kots, the war correspondent of Komsomolskaya Pravda, who has his own influential pro-war Telegram channel, said he hoped the strikes signaled a new kind of warfare that would bombard Ukraine “until it loses its ability to function.”