Can Ukraine win war in the skies with Russia?

Western-supplied weapons are bolstering Kyiv’s defences but they come at a cost

Rescuers clear debris of homes destroyed in a missile attack on the outskirts of Kyiv on 29 December
Rescuers clear debris of homes destroyed in a missile attack on the outskirts of Kyiv on 29 December
(Image credit: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukrainian officials claimed this week that 400 Russian troops had been killed in a rocket strike in occupied eastern Ukraine. Moscow acknowledged only 89 deaths, but even Russian military bloggers suggested that the toll was far higher.

The strike, on New Year’s Eve, destroyed a school building that was being used as a barracks by Russian forces in Makiivka, Donetsk.

In the days running up to the attack, Russian forces had launched air strikes at several Ukrainian cities, many of which were repelled by Kyiv’s defences. The targeted cities included Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Lviv and Kherson, which was liberated from Russian occupation in November.

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In his new year’s message, Vladimir Putin pledged to oust the “criminal Nazi regime in Kyiv”. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy said he hoped that 2023 would be the “year of return” – of its land, people and normal life. “We’re ready to fight for it,” he added.

What did the papers say?

Until recently, Russia could launch drone and rocket strikes on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure almost with impunity, said The Independent. No longer. Now, those missiles are shot down – sometimes with a 100% hit rate – by Western-supplied weapons that have arrived to bolster Kyiv’s defences.

And Ukraine is also launching retaliatory strikes: witness its successful attack on Makiivka, which reportedly destroyed an ammunition store as well as killing Russian troops. With the US-built Patriot missile defence system due to bolster its defences further, Kyiv has cause for optimism.

But that doesn’t mean Ukraine’s allies can ease up on support, said the FT. Ukrainian officials have warned that Moscow wants to begin the year with a major new offensive, perhaps targeting Kyiv again. And Russia still controls much of the four regions that it annexed in October (plus Crimea and parts of the eastern Donbas seized in 2014). Before there is any talk of a ceasefire, Ukraine must be given the help it needs to repel any Russian offensive, and strengthen its negotiating hand by regaining more lost territory.

“Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its second calendar year at a delicate point,” said Dan Sabbagh in The Guardian. With relatively mild weather giving rise to muddy conditions, neither side has made much progress on the front lines since Kherson’s liberation in November. Ukraine has been probing Russian lines for weakness near Kreminna in the Luhansk region, without making real gains.

And elsewhere in the Donbas, around Bakhmut, Kyiv is “on the defensive”, soaking up pressure from Russian forces, which in turn are suffering heavy losses. The lack of progress is partly down to Russia’s shortage of firepower. Kyiv says Moscow has gone from firing 60,000 shells a day in August, to 20,000 now; and the volume of cruise missiles it’s unleashing has also fallen sharply. Yet Putin’s new year’s message suggested he’s in no mood to back down, said Lisa Haseldine in The Spectator.

Flanked by 20 “morose-looking” troops, he cast the conflict as a near-existential fight for Russia’s future, and indicated again that he’s preparing for a long war.

That’s a risky stance, said Richard Kemp in The Daily Telegraph. Hundreds of thousands of men have now fled Russia to avoid conscription, and the 100,000 or so newly mobilised troops deployed so far barely suffice to replace the Russian soldiers killed or injured already. With the mood in Russia already uneasy, launching a new winter offensive would be a major gamble.

Kyiv has problems too, said Matthew Mpoke Bigg in The New York Times. It has enjoyed real success shooting down Russia’s Iranian-made drones; but these cost just $20,000 a piece, while firing a surface-to-air missile to take one out costs up to $500,000.

Such costs increase the risk of “Ukraine fatigue” taking hold, said Mark Galeotti in The Sunday Times. But as long as Western support doesn’t dry up, Russia will struggle to make gains, meaning Putin may have to accept peace talks in 2023. “After all, a negotiated capitulation would be a terrible and dangerous thing for him – but it would still be better than a defeat imposed upon him.”

What next?

Putin has invited China’s Xi Jinping to make a state visit to Russia in the spring, as he seeks to strengthen links between Moscow and Beijing. The invitation was extended during a video-conference last week, at which Putin said Russia’s ties with China are the “best in history”. Xi, in turn, said Beijing was ready “to increase strategic cooperation with Russia”.

The latest perk offered to Russian conscripts is having their sperm frozen and stored at a cryobank without charge. It follows increased demand for sperm banks by men who fear dying on the battlefield.

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