Russia has unleashed a fierce missile barrage against the three Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Lviv in retaliation for the truck bombing of the strategic Kerch Bridge linking the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula.
The violent exchange is a reflection of the two sides’ aims in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Kyiv has stated that not only is it intent on winning back the territories that Russia has recently annexed in the Donbas region, but also on recovering the Crimea, which Russia had annexed in 2014. Russia has made it clear that any action on that threat would meet a powerful response.
In Kyiv, Russia struck the Shevchenkivskyi and Solomianskyi districts, with one missile landing close to the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Immediately afterwards, Zelensky held a televised press conference in front of his official residence to brief the public and demand additional Western military support.
In an evident eye-for-an-eye response, another Russian missile struck a bridge, and a third hit a water station, which was meant to serve as a reminder that Russia could make the coming winter more difficult for Ukraine.
One explosion in Kyiv killed eight people, according to official Ukrainian sources. Other estimates place the number of the dead at twice that number, while dozens have also been wounded.
In Zaporizhzhia, 15 people were killed as the result of 12 missile strikes, according to the Ukrainian official media. Lviv, in western Ukraine, was struck by 15 missiles. Russia fired around 70 missiles in all, of which 20 hit their target. Officials in Lviv said their defence systems had intercepted some of them.
From images aired on the Russian media it appears that many of the missiles fell near critical infrastructure, exposing significant gaps in the Ukrainian defences. Nevertheless, some analysts pointed out that the fact that many Russia rockets had failed to reach their targets, despite the lack of defence platforms to intercept them, is indicative of flaws in Russian targeting systems.
Washington will be delivering two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAM) air-defence systems to Ukraine, a US defence official announced on Monday. The system, which has been called the “White House guard” as the US has also used it to protect the airspace over Washington, has been on order since July.
In Ukraine, the NASAMs will presumably be deployed to guard Ukrainian military command buildings and other security and diplomatic sites.
In the aftermath of the Russian strikes, Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, urged the bloc to earmark more money to pay for military support for Ukraine. Germany announced that it would send four Iris-T air-defence systems to Ukraine. The first will be ready in a few days, said German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht.
The West has been calibrating the quantities and quality of its weapons supplies to Ukraine in the light of developments on the ground. This graduated approach and the possibility that the weapons may not be reaching Ukraine quickly enough might hamper the Ukrainian forces’ ability to win definitive battles.
But these forces have been equipped and trained enough to carried out counter-offensives that have recovered hundreds of square km of territory from Russia in the Kharkiv, Kherson, and Donetsk regions.
In terms of strategy, the recent exchange does not necessarily mark a major shift in the rules of engagement. So far, the escalation has been incremental, calculated according to the messages each side wants to deliver to the other, and the exchanges are still within the conventional rules of engagement.
In the event of other rounds, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that if Kyiv stages another what he termed “terrorist” attack, his response would be harsher, which is consistent with a calibrated escalation.
The fact that Moscow has not yet called tactical nuclear weapons into play also lends itself to this outlook. Both sides will also be factoring in the nature and level of Western military aid to Ukraine, which could make a difference in the pace and direction of the military escalation. The same thing might apply if Russia steps up tactics that appear to be geared to accomplishing Moscow’s political aim of dismantling the regime in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, it is doubtful that Russia has its sights set on seizing more Ukrainian territory now that it has annexed Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. It does not have full control over all these administrative regions, especially Zaporizhzhia and Kherson and even Donetsk, parts of which have been retaken by Ukrainian forces.
As a result, firing rockets at many different locations, including Lviv, a gateway for arms shipments in the far west of the country, serves another purpose, namely to signal that Russian missiles can reach many places that are remote from the front and simultaneously.
It is a primarily defensive posture, although according to Ukrainian sources Russia has rearmed its warships in the Black Sea as though to signal that it is ready for further strikes deep into the Ukrainian interior.
Russia’s most likely aim at present is to regain the initiative, not to mount another westward offensive, but rather to perpetuate the status quo and consolidate its hold over the areas it has acquired at great cost.
At the same time, it is important to bear in mind the recent Russian troop mobilisation, of which some 300,000 troops are to be deployed in the newly annexed provinces. It is still too early to tell to what extent this could be a game-changer, because training will take some time. But according to footage on Russian media, the soldiers are being trained in artillery, which may offer some insight into the Russian plan for the difficult winter season that is just a few weeks away.
Ukraine has every intention to fight the Russian coercion, but this resistance also comes at a very heavy price.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.