Ukraine Changes Weapons Wish List After Kyiv Terrorism Attacks

Send more air defenses, Ukrainian officials implored, and send them now.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Ukrainian soldier looks out from a self-propelled howitzer.
A Ukrainian soldier looks out from a self-propelled howitzer.
A Ukrainian soldier looks out from a self-propelled howitzer on the front line in Donetsk region on Oct. 10, after Russian forces launched at least 75 missiles at Ukraine, with fatal strikes targeting the capital and cities in the south and west. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

It was the tale of two explosions: the first, a likely Ukrainian attack on the Russian-built Kerch Strait Bridge sent smoke billowing into Crimea’s skies and lit up social media in the wee hours of Saturday. The second, Russian cruise and ballistic missile strikes hit the heart of downtown Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on Monday morning, targeting a 3-year-old glass pedestrian bridge in a Kyiv park in addition to some playgrounds. A chunk of the Russian bridge collapsed into the Black Sea; but even amid ongoing air raids on Monday, the glass bridge was still standing.

That was the split screen that Ukrainian officials tried to emphasize on Monday, as Russia launched cruise and ballistic missile strikes across the country, which targeted civilians and energy infrastructure, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 87 people. The reprisals struck Kyiv for the first time in months, during rush hour, in what Ukraine’s National Police described as the largest missile assault on the country in its history. But even as Ukrainian and Western officials described the attacks that left a smoking crater in Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko Park as an act of desperation, and as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stepped outside Mariinsky Palace to record a defiant Telegram message, they acknowledged that the war-torn country would need more air and missile defenses to guard against the Kremlin’s increasing salvos—and fast.

For months, Ukraine had been seeking long-range rockets and plentiful artillery shells; after Russia destroyed public schools, parks, playgrounds, and power plants, Ukrainian officials were urgently resorting their weapons demands to NATO nations. On Monday, Ukraine’s top parliamentarian, Ruslan Stefanchuk, sent letters to congressional leadership calling on the United States to prioritize the delivery of National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), which are jointly produced with Norway, as well as counter-rocket, mortar, and artillery systems—a clear sign that those defensive weapons had moved up the Ukrainian military priority list ahead of multiple rocket launchers, fighter jets, and long-range rocket systems that Kyiv has been demanding for months. Zelensky, after a phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden, stated that obtaining air defenses was his No. 1 priority.

It was the tale of two explosions: the first, a likely Ukrainian attack on the Russian-built Kerch Strait Bridge sent smoke billowing into Crimea’s skies and lit up social media in the wee hours of Saturday. The second, Russian cruise and ballistic missile strikes hit the heart of downtown Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on Monday morning, targeting a 3-year-old glass pedestrian bridge in a Kyiv park in addition to some playgrounds. A chunk of the Russian bridge collapsed into the Black Sea; but even amid ongoing air raids on Monday, the glass bridge was still standing.

That was the split screen that Ukrainian officials tried to emphasize on Monday, as Russia launched cruise and ballistic missile strikes across the country, which targeted civilians and energy infrastructure, killing at least 11 people and injuring more than 87 people. The reprisals struck Kyiv for the first time in months, during rush hour, in what Ukraine’s National Police described as the largest missile assault on the country in its history. But even as Ukrainian and Western officials described the attacks that left a smoking crater in Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko Park as an act of desperation, and as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stepped outside Mariinsky Palace to record a defiant Telegram message, they acknowledged that the war-torn country would need more air and missile defenses to guard against the Kremlin’s increasing salvos—and fast.

For months, Ukraine had been seeking long-range rockets and plentiful artillery shells; after Russia destroyed public schools, parks, playgrounds, and power plants, Ukrainian officials were urgently resorting their weapons demands to NATO nations. On Monday, Ukraine’s top parliamentarian, Ruslan Stefanchuk, sent letters to congressional leadership calling on the United States to prioritize the delivery of National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), which are jointly produced with Norway, as well as counter-rocket, mortar, and artillery systems—a clear sign that those defensive weapons had moved up the Ukrainian military priority list ahead of multiple rocket launchers, fighter jets, and long-range rocket systems that Kyiv has been demanding for months. Zelensky, after a phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden, stated that obtaining air defenses was his No. 1 priority.

“Ukrainian Armed Forces had successfully [shot] down almost half of the missiles and Iranian drones, but unfortunately our air defense resources are limited,” Stefanchuk wrote in the letter seen by Foreign Policy. “By this attack, Russia received no military advance; it was an act of terror, targeted exclusively against the civilian population. NASAMS Ground Air Defense Systems are crucial to secure critical civil and military infrastructure from Russian cruise missiles and bombings, while Land-Based Phalanx Weapon System (C-RAM) would allow for the closest point protection of the most important objects, especially crucial power plants.”

Stefanchuk said Ukraine was also seeking American F-15 and F-16 fighter jets to enforce a no-fly zone against Russian cruise missiles and bombers, possibly with air-to-air missiles. Ukraine also wants the Biden administration to shake off its reticence and provide longer-range U.S. Army Tactical Missile Systems—known as ATACMs—which could hit Russian targets 200 miles away, and Gray Eagle strike drones to counteract the off-the-shelf Iranian drones that have wreaked havoc on Ukrainian lines. Politico reported this month that Ukrainian officials were putting greater emphasis on requesting air defenses from the West.

Although Western air defenses could provide a patchwork shield against Russian missile strikes, the arrival of new batteries would not make Ukrainian airspace a no-go zone, even as the country’s native air defenses have held up for more than 200 days—far longer than Western intelligence agencies initially anticipated. Russian Kalibr cruise missiles, the Kremlin’s weapon of choice in Monday’s strikes, fly at lower altitudes that allow them to more readily evade air defenses. Western officials believe that the Kremlin’s stocks of precision-guided missiles have dwindled significantly since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion in February.

But nearly eight months into the war, Ukrainian troops are still left with makeshift options to defend against Russia’s onslaught from the skies—and today’s strikes only brought more urgency after the attacks shattered the relative calm that had fallen over Kyiv in the past few months. On Monday, a Ukrainian territorial defender managed to shoot down an incoming Russian missile with a shoulder-launched rocket. In downtown Kyiv, missiles blew out the windows of university buildings and a blood-soaked older woman, who had been walking her two dogs in the park, was hustled away from the scene by a firefighter.

And officials are warning that the worst is yet to come. Stefanchuk, the top Ukrainian lawmaker, said Russia was likely to continue to escalate attacks on civilians as Ukraine advanced on the battlefield in an effort to cut the public off from heat and electricity ahead of looming subzero temperatures with the coming winter—threats that have been echoed by Putin’s allies. Zelensky, who huddled with his top advisors to discuss the energy situation, said Russia had targeted energy facilities in nearly a dozen regions of the country and called on the Ukrainian public to reduce electricity consumption for a five-hour period on Monday evening to prevent an emergency shutdown after a series of strikes on power plants.

For weeks, the Kremlin has telegraphed that it has wanted to slow down Ukraine’s battlefield advances with strikes targeting infrastructure and civilians. Russian troops’ cruel logic, experts said, is that if they can’t beat Ukrainian troops on the battlefield, they will try to harm their wives and children at home. And Putin also has to play for time, spreading out Ukrainian defenses, with a purported 300,000 mobilized Russian reserves not set to be ready for weeks, if not months, to prevent ceding more ground.

“If the strategy that Putin is pursuing is to play for time so that you can build up your own new forces through mobilization and gain time for economic warfare against Europe to properly bite, moving to the point where it really starts to genuinely wreak havoc, … then you don’t really want to cede somewhere that’s actually quite defensible and where they have a lot of prepared positions,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

With images of Kyiv’s blood-spattered streets all over the news, Western leaders rallied around Zelensky. Following a call with the Ukrainian leader, French President Emmanuel Macron, who has hesitated to send more weapons, called today a profound change. The German defense ministry pledged that the first of four IRIS-T air defense systems, a truck-mounted infrared missile that can hit targets miles away, would show up in Kyiv “within days.” U.S. officials have also said that some of the eight NASAMS batteries pledged to Ukraine will begin arriving in the coming months, though some of those systems are not available to be pulled out of defense stocks and will need to be manufactured.

Zelensky is also set to join a virtual meeting of the G-7 nations tomorrow. And U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley are set to head to Brussels on Wednesday for the latest meeting of the 50-nation Ukraine Defense Contact Group that will hash out Kyiv’s latest arms requests.

But for some Ukrainian officials, Western military aid is coming too little, too late—feelings that were echoed within Zelensky’s inner circle.

“I think it’s obvious to everybody they should have been here before today happened,” Oleksandra “Sasha” Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker who has made several trips to Washington in recent months to urge U.S. counterparts and administration officials to speed up weapons transfers, told Foreign Policy in a phone interview. “I don’t know what the excuses are, but it costs lives for Ukrainians. We’re not asking for offensive weapons. This is purely defensive—for the civilians.”

And that’s becoming more urgent, former U.S. officials said, as Putin is increasingly falling behind in the military ground game.

“This shows that Russia only has one option to respond to successes by the Ukrainian military: attacks designed to terrorize Ukrainian civilians,” Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, told Foreign Policy in a text message. “The Russians are losing the war on the ground and are not turning that around.”

“The U.S. and the international community must immediately provide the Ukrainians with the most advanced air and missile defense systems available to guard population centers,” he added. “[T]hese attacks will likely only get worse.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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