LONDON — The Russian missiles that rained down Monday on cities across Ukraine, bringing fear and destruction to areas that had seen months of relative calm, are an escalation in Moscow’s war against its neighbor.
But military analysts say it’s far from clear whether the strikes mark a turning point in a war that has killed thousands of Ukrainians and sent millions fleeing from their homes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the attacks were retaliation for a blast Saturday that damaged a showpiece bridge linking Russia to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014. Putin called the Kerch Bridge attack an “act of terrorism” and vowed a “tough” response to any further attacks that threaten Russia’s security. The 12-mile (19-kilometer) bridge, opened in 2018, is the only land link to Crimea from the Russian mainland.
Simon Smith, a former British ambassador to Ukraine, said the Russian leader was trying to send “a ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’ message” to Ukraine.
Smith said the hail of Russian missiles onto civilian areas was “psychological and physical intimidation” – but also “an act of desperation” from a Russian leader whose troops are losing territory in parts of eastern Ukraine that Moscow has already annexed.
“This is very much Putin on the back foot,” said Smith, who heads the Ukraine Forum at the think-tank Chatham House. “He is on the defensive.”
Russia’s defense ministry said it had targeted “military command and communication facilities and energy infrastructure,” but Ukraine accused Moscow of indiscriminately hitting civilian areas. Ukrainian authorities said Russia fired 84 missiles against 10 cities, with 56 of them neutralized by air defenses. At least a dozen people were killed and over 60 wounded in the missile strikes, officials said.
“Russia is seeking to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses,” Justin Crump, chief executive of security consultancy Sibylline, told the BBC. “That’s something they have tried throughout the conflict, but never on this scale.”
Crump said Ukraine will likely seek more surface-to-air missiles from Western allies to strengthen its air defenses. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is due to speak Tuesday to Group of Seven leaders during a video conference.
Michael Clarke, a visiting professor in war studies at King’s College London, said Monday’s attacks, while brutal, likely were not a turning point in the war, “because in a way, the Russians are already doing their worst.”
Ukrainians are finding mass graves and evidence of torture — and are undertaking war crimes investigations — in cities and towns recaptured after months of Russian occupation.
“In increasing the worst, all they do is bring more civilian misery to Ukraine, which will harden the resolve (of Ukrainians),” Clarke said. “And they are still losing on the ground.”
Monday’s fierce bombardment came two days after Putin put air force chief Gen. Sergei Surovikin in command of all Russian forces in Ukraine. Surovikin previously led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a brutal bombardment that destroyed much of the city of Aleppo.
Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at military think-tank the Royal United Services Institute, said Surovikin’s appointment probably will not bring a major change to Russia’s military campaign.
“He has had a career that’s been blighted by accusations of both corruption and brutality,” Kaushal said. “So that may be some insight into how he will approach it. But then again, the Russian approach has already been quite brutal.”
Kaushal said Russia had “used a pretty phenomenal number of missiles” in the war so far and could run short of some of modern precision weapons. But he said Russia had “large numbers of stockpiled holdovers from the Soviet era” and still retained a capacity to inflict heavy damage on Ukraine.
“Given the sheer number of targets, and given that overall, the Russian missiles in terms of their accuracy and performance have been reasonably good, you would expect at least some bits of Ukrainian critical infrastructure, some things like power grids, to be destroyed over the course of the campaign,” Kaushal said.
Ukraine says it will not back down.
Kyiv has not officially claimed responsibility for the Crimea bridge attack, but Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain, Vadym Prystaiko, on Monday called the bridge a legitimate military target and said Kyiv’s forces would strike more sites of high military significance to Russia.
“We are not targeting Russian civilian infrastructure anywhere, especially beyond the Ukrainian official borders with Russia,” he told Times Radio. “But to achieve the victory, we will have to push further and further.”
Smith, the former ambassador, said Monday’s attacks were not “game-changing.” But he said Putin, faced with Ukrainian advances on the ground, had opened up “a new dimension” in the war.
“If Putin knows that deploying hundreds of thousands of his armed forces in Ukraine is going to be a dead loss because they are so poorly commanded and poorly equipped, then he is going to be looking for ways of visiting death and destruction on Ukraine from a greater distance,” Smith said — and that raises significant questions for Ukraine’s Western allies.
“The countries supporting Ukraine need to think about the ways they can help Ukraine defend itself against that,” Smith said.
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