Russia began its assault on Ukraine on Thursday morning by using cruise missiles. Reports showed video of the relatively slow missiles flying low to the ground, and other footage showed rocket and missile launches closer to the front. Rob Lee, an expert on conflict between Russia and Ukraine, tweeted that the cruise missiles used against Ivano-Frankivsk were of the Kalibr type. Ballistic missiles were also used.
There is a variety of hardware at the disposal of the modern Russian military. Lee notes that Moscow could be using the sea-launched Kalibr, the ground-launched Iskander-M 9M728 or air-launched cruise missiles. A vast arsenal is available to Russia and evidence points to some of it already being used, such as the BM-30 Smerch rocket, KH-31 anti-radar missiles and various types of multiple launch rocket systems, such as Grad rockets, as well as vehicle-mounted TOS-1, a multi-barreled rocket launcher mounted on a tank chassis.
Russia is believed to have begun the attack primarily using this missile arsenal, from its cruise missiles to the Iskander ballistic ones, as well as shorter-range rockets. This is the unveiling of the new Russian way of war: employing Soviet-era technology with more modern Russian systems, designed at first to avoid needing to use the air force over Ukraine.
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Why is the plan being carried out this way? Russia clearly planned these strikes carefully. It is employing a tactic that was perfected by the US in past wars: trying to strike air defenses and airfields; to neutralize the Ukrainian air defenses before any kind of ground invasion might begin, and before Russia tries to dominate Ukraine’s skies with warplanes. This is what the US did in Iraq in 1991 and also in 2003.
Russian President Vladimir Putin likely took some cues from the 1990s, but also wants to use a new Russian method of war. This is a war without the setbacks Russia faced in Chechnya in the 1990s. It also builds upon Russian success against Georgia in 2008 and in Syria after 2015.
How did Russia get here?
IN APRIL 1999, the US and NATO allies launched a war against Yugoslavia over accusations that Serbs were committing ethnic-cleansing in Kosovo. The war began with airstrikes, much like Washington used to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
Air power was how America conducted its foreign and military policy in the 1990s. While NATO bombed Yugoslav forces in 1999, Putin was rising to power. He had spent that decade transforming himself from a KGB officer stationed in Germany when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989, to a contender for leading Russia.
Putin watched the Kosovo war carefully. The war was a kind of humiliation for Russia because Yugoslavia, specifically Serbia, was a key historical partner of Russia. But NATO didn’t care much for Russia’s concerns.
Even so, NATO hadn’t defeated the Serbs in Kosovo after weeks of the bombing campaign. “Three weeks and at least 4,000 sorties later, US and European officials say NATO pilots have badly damaged communications links and early warning radar that allow Yugoslav forces to aim their surface-to-air missiles, but they also acknowledge much of the weaponry remains intact and still poses a significant threat to NATO warplanes that dip too low,” The Washington Post reported at the time.
Russia saw the challenges NATO faced and also its successes. It may be trying to show NATO that now things are reversed and Ukraine will be treated the way Serbia and Yugoslavia were treated by the Western treaty organization.
The Kremlin has learned some lessons from using cruise missiles and trying to dominate the air. The US believed wars could be won primarily in the air without risking any American casualties. It had largely vanquished Saddam’s army through weeks of air war, followed by several days of ground combat. Washington also sought to defeat the Serbs in the same way.
The US at the time had impunity to do as it wanted. It had offered Serbia a choice about Kosovo: Either leave or be bombed. This was the height of US global hegemony, and in a sense the height of arrogance. Bombing had been carried out on Iraq as well in 1998. Whenever the US wanted something, the threat of bombing was always waiting in the wings.
This US strategy shifted after 9/11. The Powell Doctrine envisioned requiring a clear objective for using the military: No more Vietnams. America shifted from this to the global war on terror after 9/11. This was counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. The US eroded the doctrine: There was no objective in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US basically lost both conflicts.
INTO THE declining US global hegemony has come a resurgent Russia, whose modern units include a large number of forces that have been modernized and professionalized, as well as those that have seen service in places like Syria. Russian Special Forces, for instance, have been deployed to Syria. Russian naval, air defense and air force units have been there. Russian Airborne forces have also been training frequently, including with Belarus.
Among the forces arrayed against Ukraine are the units of the Taman and Kantemirovskaya Divisions, which were reportedly recently in Dolbino, some 30 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. These are reputed to be good units that will be sent in as part of an armored push into Ukraine. There are a variety of other forces among the 150,000 troops that Russia has concentrated. The overall context is that Putin has improved Russia’s armed forces over the last two decades.
The war in Syria was seen as a test bed for new Russian technology and for Russia to improve its air forces and rocket and missile forces. It has also been observing recent conflicts such as how Azerbaijan defeated Armenia using drones and air power. Moscow has paid close attention to this.
Putin’s goal is to unveil a whole new way of war for Russia. This will lean on Russian historic expertise in artillery and other types of forces, but it will also rely on caution and methods learned from successes in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and elsewhere.
It will also learn from the failures of the 1990s and by how the US and NATO were both successful and unsuccessful in various recent conflicts. Putin wants to show that his investment in the military has paid off. He has often said that the investment is necessary.
Now the world will wait and see if this Russian military can neutralize the Ukrainian defenses or if it will run into challenges.