Russia has been bombarding Ukrainian cities with missiles and kamikaze drones for more than seven weeks now. According to the Russians, the airstrikes are aimed at the country’s military infrastructure, but in reality they target power plants, the electricity grid, water companies and residential areas, killing innocent civilians every day.
“The Kremlin hopes that the Ukrainian people will not be able to cope with the cold and other hardships and will put pressure on their leaders to reach an agreement with Russia,” said Russia correspondent Eva Hartog. “Or that there will be a massive refugee flow that will cause division in Europe.”
That division seems a long way off for the time being. At a meeting last night, NATO countries pledged to help Ukraine repair infrastructure and keep the population warm with winter clothing. But is that enough? Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba was also present and was clear about what he wants.
“If we have transformers and generators, we can restore our energy needs. If we have air defense systems, we can protect ourselves from the next Russian missile attacks. In short: Patriots and transformers are what Ukraine needs most,” says Kuleba.
‘No LOI Course’
The Patriot air defense system, made by the American company Raytheon, is the most advanced system NATO owns and can detect and disable missiles, drones, helicopters, aircraft and other threats. There is one problem: the system is so advanced that Ukrainian soldiers also need extensive training to use it.
“I don’t see that happening in the short term,” says Mart de Kruif, former head of the army. “Because then, like NATO, you have to send soldiers along, which is not an option. Patriots are very complicated to handle and maintain. In the Dutch army, this is done by the air defense command DGLC, which invests a huge amount of time, among other things. It takes a long time , it is not an LOI course.”
According to him, alternative systems, such as the American Avenger and the German Gepard, can be quickly deployed. “But then a patchwork of local air defense systems is created. And you can’t shoot ballistic missiles with it. But we have to get rid of the idea that we can protect all of Ukraine. The country is bigger than France.”
It raises the question of what options Ukraine and the West have left to respond to the continued shelling of civilian targets. Shortly after the invasion, Ukrainian President Zelensky repeatedly asked NATO to establish a no-fly zone to make it more difficult for the Russians to attack Ukraine from the air. But such a no-fly zone is out of the question for NATO. This is because fighter jets must be deployed, which increases the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia.
And that fear of escalating the war is still there. “Although the fear that Russia will deploy a tactical nuclear weapon is no longer so dominant,” says Russia expert Hubert Smeets. “Putin expressly threatened that he would protect his territory by any means available, including the captured territory of Ukraine, which he considers Russia. He has not followed through on that threat.”
According to him, this could lead to Ukraine being more daring in reclaiming its territory in the near future. “But to really point Western-supplied weapons at Russian territory?
War of attrition
Now that winter has set in and both armies are entrenched along the front, a protracted war of attrition is likely with many more missiles. Ukraine hopes – with all the Western help it can get – to get through the winter without too much damage. And in the meantime hope that support in Russia for the war will fall further.
“For Putin, every day the war continues is one too many,” says correspondent Hartog. “His image as a victorious leader is crumbling. At the same time, this is a gradual process and there is little visible discontent in Russia.”
That’s because many Russians seem to believe the story of fighting NATO. As a result, they are also more willing to understand and forgive Russia’s setbacks, says Hartog. “But in the long run, Putin will have to come up with a result. What happens if he doesn’t is a question that will no doubt occupy the Kremlin.”