As Russia’s troubled invasion of Ukraine limps on, and the weaknesses of Vladimir Putin’s military machine are exposed, there was one weapon in Moscow’s arsenal that was supposed to be utterly unstoppable, impervious to any and all air defenses, the pride of the Kremlin: its Kinzhal or Dagger hypersonic missiles, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear payloads.
They travel at more than five times the speed of sound, and represent the pinnacle of Russian weapon engineering. It was allegedly impregnable, a bulletproof weapon costing $10 million a piece, this fearsome blade.
However, 6 of those same missiles, launched in a ferocious barrage at Kyiv last night, alongside six Shahed drones, three Orlan drones, nine Kalibr cruise missiles launched from the Black Sea, and three other ballistic missiles, were reportedly all successfully intercepted. In other words, the attack, lasting about 20 minutes and launched at just after 3 in the morning, was a spectacular failure.
The sustained barrage is estimated to have cost Russia some $120 million, at least. The Ukrainians called the attack “exceptional,” despite what they said was a perfect record of interceptions.
Indeed, it was a stunning demonstration of Ukraine’s vastly improved air defense systems, and underscores the challenges Russia faces, as Kyiv’s partners supply Ukraine with some of their most advanced military technologies.
In the past year, the government in Kyiv has received numerous Patriot air defense batteries from the United States, alongside a slew of other sophisticated systems donated from allied Western countries. Those defenses are increasingly frustrating Moscow’s attempts to terrify and intimidate the Ukrainian population, and were targeted last night in Russia’s failed bombardment.
One of those Patriot batteries reportedly suffered an indirect hit, but remains operational, according to Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat. The vaunted American system is merely one of many layered air defense systems now operating around the Ukrainian capital; each Patriot battery costs $400 million, with $690 millon for the missiles, totaling more than a billion dollars apiece.
For those living in Kyiv, it’s surely worth every penny.
The limitations of domestic repression
In related news, three of Russia’s top weapons scientists have been arrested and charged with high treason, provoking a rare outcry from Russian academics, who published an open letter denouncing the arrests. The three men worked on issues relating to hypersonic missile technology in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, and were well regarded in Russia’s academic research community.
Valery Zvegintsev, Anatoly Maslov and Alexander Shiplyuk worked at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, and are accused of passing classified secrets related to their research on hypersonic technology to China and Iran, apparently by publishing research in foreign publications.
Colleagues are adamant that the arrests were unjustified. Still, they’re neither the first nor the last Russians to be swept into Putin’s dragnet, as the Russian police state convulses in on itself, demanding victims.
In any case, they’re facing 20 years in a grim Russian prison colony, in an attempt to put the fear of god into scientists and officials working in Putin’s Russia, even as the CIA steps up its recruiting of Russian assets with a new video encouraging espionage, and a dark web address designed to mask the identities of spies and leakers.
The Kremlin has unleashed a wave of savage domestic repression since beginning its war in Ukraine, cracking down on what little remained of the free press and political dissent in authoritarian Russia, in moves that are reminiscent of Stalinist terror in the 1930s. At this point in Russia, you can be expected to be arrested for talking out of turn on social media, calling the war in Ukraine a war, or even mentioning the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and the Nazis prior to World War II.
Nevertheless, domestic repression doesn’t win wars, and stifling Russia’s best scientists working within the military-industrial complex is hardly a winning strategy. As the Russian scientists themselves noted in their open letter to the Kremlin, these moves threaten to “collapse” weapons research in Russia, at a most inopportune moment.
A dark portent of things to come
As Ukraine gears up for its long-expected counteroffensive, and worsening fissures appear in the Russian leadership, it’s unclear how Russia might stanch the bleeding on or off the battlefield. The regime in Moscow increasingly appears to be in disarray, hamstrung and lacking initiative, and no amount of domestic repression is going to solve its problems.
Rather, it’s clear that Vladimir Putin has launched what appears to be a catastrophic and unwinnable war on Russia’s border, a merciless invasion that has claimed an estimated 200,000 casualties in the Russian military alone, and untold suffering across a battered but undefeated Ukraine. Of course, the war also remains a menacing peril for humanity at large, as the world’s largest nuclear superpower finds its conventional military options more limited by the day, even as Ukraine’s capabilities steadily improve.
Now, Moscow appears to be facing significant challenges to its wartime strategy of inflicting terror on Ukrainian civilians with long-range bombardments like the one stymied last night in Kyiv. It’s yet another grim setback for the Kremlin, in its war of imperial aggression, launched without provocation or reason. It’s unlikely to be the last, as the Ukrainian military prepares what it hopes will be a devastating counteroffensive, designed to push the Russians out of their country once and for all.