Russia’s increased use of Iran’s Shahed-136 drones reflects both a strength and a weakness. Monday morning drone explosions in the center of Kyivin two groups during the morning rush hour, to show how weapons can wreak havoc and fear in a capital that, as recently as a week ago, had not been attacked in months.
The Shahed-136 first entered the war in September, and while they are described as kamikaze drones, they are better thought of as small cruise missiles with relatively limited destructive power given their 50kg payload. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russia bought 2,400 — that sounds like a big number, but they will run out quickly.
Justin Bronk, an air force specialist at the Rusi think tank, says drones are “difficult to consistently intercept,” but their airspeed is low compared to cruise missiles, meaning air defenses will always have a chance. “After all, they offer a way for Russia will cause more casualties among civilians and military personnel in Ukraine, but will not change the course of the war,” he said.
This is the second major attack on Kyiv in a week. Last Monday, in response to the explosion on the Kerch Bridge in Crimea, Russia unleashed a deadly hail of missile and drone strikes on Kiev and other major cities.
The bloody success of last Monday’s attack – an estimated 15 people were killed that day alone – and today’s destruction reveal the limitations of Kiev’s air defenses. It is not clear why it has taken so long, but the US responded last week that it would speed up the delivery of the first two of the eight promised Nasams air defense systems, which are considered good enough to protect the Pentagon.
But while the attacks on Kyiv make headlines around the world, the military advantage is close to zero and in isolation will not have a significant psychological impact on the civilian population of the country, to a large extent decisive. The attacks have sparked fear but also anger, especially after Vladimir Putin said there was “no need” for more massive strikes on Ukraine.
Their use also seems to demonstrate that Russia lacks guided missiles. Western officials said Friday that they generally agree with a Ukrainian assessment that Moscow had exhausted about two-thirds of its reserves and had only 124 of its 900 medium-range Iskanders left. “We think it’s right,” said one, although such conclusions cannot be verified.
They were there some monday morning deals that Russia may have been partially trying to target an energy facility in the capital, although full details have yet to be confirmed. Still, more broadly, with the onset of winter and the country’s “heating season,” there are growing signs that Russia is trying to target Ukraine’s energy and other utility networks.
Concerned defenders of the country are also not losing focus, urging people to reduce their electricity consumption between 5 and 11 p.m. Over the past month, the power supply of Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv has sometimes suffered from Russian strikes.
Drones like the Shahed-136 are more effective against such static targets than against armies, and for Moscow the disruptive effect on Ukraine could be greater. At the same time, Russia will very much want to stop Ukraine’s advance on the battlefield, at least until the heavy late autumn rains are expected, which will cause a pause.
Russia’s call to evacuate civilians from the Kherson region last week may have been called merely temporary one local officialbut this is the next step in the gradual retreat from the west of the Dnieper, where her forces have been retreating since the beginning of the month.
Ukraine has been counter-offensive, pushing and pushing against the Russian lines since early September, but with little material success until the first half of October, when the invaders relinquished a section of territory up to 30 miles inland northwest of Kherson to a new front, north of the village of Milave.
If this was an attempt to rationalize the front line, it clearly did not succeed in light of the evacuation announcement, and there was speculation in some western areas that Kherson itself could be recaptured next week, although such talk is perhaps too optimistic.
It may be that Russia is simply girding itself for the urban defense of the city, allowing its lines to squeeze and bind Ukraine in a costly fall battle. The city will be easier to defend than the territory around it, which creates a dilemma for Kiev as to how far it is willing to push for success.
But for now, it’s the front line in the nearly eight-month-old war, where Ukraine seems to hold the ground initiative. Russia also continues to be under pressure in the northeastern part of the front, where Ukraine is seeking to advance towards Kremen after taking Liman and the Svatava transport hub.
Nothing else works for Moscow. Russia throws out the mobilized from the half-million draft to the front line, and the first depressing reports appeared forced conscripts who die in places like Lisichansk after minimal or no training.
Ukraine’s advance on the front line is now slow but steady, and the concern must remain that Russia, under pressure, will turn to increased attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, because that is the only tactic it seems to see through , exert any influence.