The Russian response to the attack on the Crimean bridge on Saturday morning came after 48 hours – in the form of a barrage of cruise missiles.
On Monday morning, air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine, and cruise missiles hit everywhere from Kiev to Odessa and from Lviv to Dnipro. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported in the morning that 83 missiles had been fired at the time, of which 43 had been shot down. The rest detonated at power plants, business centers and at an intersection in the center of Kiev during the morning rush hour. At least 11 people were killed and dozens injured across the country as Ukrainian citizens shared images of burning cars in the center of the capital on social media.
It was Putin’s revenge for the attack on the bridge over the Kerch Strait, which was damaged by a powerful explosion early Saturday morning. A “terrorist attack” on “critical civilian infrastructure of the Russian Federation,” the Russian president said Monday morning. His response was the largest volley of rockets since the beginning of the war. “A mass attack with precision weapons,” Vladimir Putin said, targeting Ukraine’s “energy supply, chain of command and connectivity.”
Also read: Was the explosion on the Crimean bridge caused by a truck, a boat or a rocket?
That definition could include Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office on Volodymyrsky Street, where a rocket landed on Monday morning – without causing much damage. But there were also explosions in Shevchenko Park and at the pedestrian bridge towards the Michaelmas Monastery, one of the most important historical sites in the Orthodox world. It was difficult to determine on Monday morning whether these were drops or targeted attacks on civilian targets. President Zelensky took over last Monday. “They are trying to destroy us and completely wipe us off the face of the earth,” the Ukrainian president said in response.
The West reacted with outrage. An EU spokesman spoke of a “barbaric and cowardly attack”. The French foreign minister went a step further: “Deliberately attacking the civilian population is a war crime.”
The Russian bombardment caused considerable damage in several places. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said 11 “important infrastructural objects” had been damaged across the country. Power also went out in some areas of Kiev and other cities. Civilians spent hours in air raid shelters and in the metropolis underground. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said “all targets had been destroyed”. The missiles were likely fired from the Black Sea, from Russian territory and from Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine.
But the Russians had to do everything to cope with this heavy blow. The Ukrainian Army’s report reported that various weapon systems have been deployed: modern ‘Kalibr’ type cruise weapons, but also old Soviet missiles such as Ch-101 and Ch-55, and even S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which have been used against ground targets for a long time. It therefore seems unlikely that Russia will be able to sustain shelling of this magnitude for long.
The cruise missile attacks – at long range – further underlined the extremely poor performance of the Russian Air Force, which has failed to achieve air superiority in seven months of war. According to estimates by the Ukrainian military staff, 267 Russian planes have been shot down. Large-scale bombing raids by aircraft, such as those carried out by Russia over Syria, have proven impossible in Ukraine. New supplies of modern Western air defenses will further complicate the situation for the Russians. German Defense Ministry Christine Lambrecht said on Monday it would deliver the first of a total of four IRIS-T anti-aircraft systems “as soon as possible” to better protect Ukrainian cities.
Since the Ukrainian blitzkrieg in the Kharkov region in early September, Russia has lost: the hastily announced mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russian reservists has done little to change that.
On Monday, however, another Russian attack from the north seemed imminent – this time perhaps with the participation of Belarusian troops. Last weekend, Ukraine’s ambassador in Minsk was summoned because Ukraine was planning an “attack” on Belarusian territory – something Kiev vehemently denied. During a meeting with his army command, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed on Monday that the Ukrainians want to open a “second front” against Minsk. Lukashenko said he has therefore agreed with President Putin to create a Russian-Belarusian military task force. The basis for this will be the “Belarusian army,” Lukashenko said, but he did not say what the task force is for or whether Belarus will now join the war.
Earlier, it was announced that Belarus is preparing for the encampment of 20,000 Russian soldiers – mainly mobilized reservists. Lukashenko then said that while Belarus is participating in Russia’s ‘special military operation’, Belarusian soldiers are “not killing anyone”.
Another attack from the north – this time with poorly trained reservists – will not reverse the Russian military odds, but it could slow the Ukrainian advance in the east and south. Since the Russian retreat from Kiev last March, the Ukrainians have fortified the border with Belarus, including minefields. However, a second attack would force Kiev to move troops north at the expense of the Kherson and Donbas offensives.
It would be a welcome gain of time for Putin, but it also appears to be a stay of execution. In recent weeks, military options for the Russian president have dwindled rapidly – so much so that there has been talk in the Russian media of nuclear retaliation for the attack on the Crimean bridge. However, the deployment of (tactical) nuclear weapons would lead to a direct collision with the US and NATO. Putin does not seem to be taking such a risk at the moment. And with Monday’s bombing, calls for retaliation in Russia appear to have been silenced for a while. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, still extremely critical last week, wrote on Telegram that he was “100 percent satisfied” with the approach to the war.