With Russian supply columns being struck by Ukrainian artillery and Ukrainian drones still flying, harassing Russia’s invasion, Moscow has turned to a new weapon to show that it, too, has unique capabilities.
Russia claimed it used a new hypersonic missile this week to target an underground arms depot in western Ukraine.
That it had to resort to this weapon apparently speaks to the fact that it is reluctant to risk aircraft over parts of Ukraine. However, for Moscow, it’s also about testing new weapons.
Moscow used the war in Syria to test new weapons as well. Ukraine is now a place for Russia to showcase its abilities.
Most commentary has focused on Russia’s failures in Ukraine so far. Even though it has seized ground, it is relying on pummeling civilians, and video shows it is losing a lot of vehicles.
The hypersonic missile is all about reversing this image.
“If confirmed, it would be Russia’s first use in this war of the Kinzhal, or Dagger, a ballistic missile launched from the air, most likely by a MiG-31 warplane,” the BBC reported.
“President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly highlighted Russia’s investment in hypersonic missiles, which can travel at more than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5,” the report said.
The statistics are impressive. According to Russian officials, the Kinzhal can hit a target up to 2,000 km. (1,240 miles) away and can fly faster than 6,000 kph.
Last year, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said China’s hypersonic weapons test was almost a “Sputnik moment.” Sputnik was the name of the first Russian spacecraft, which beat the Americans into outer space.
“Russia prides itself on its advanced weaponry, and President Vladimir Putin said in December that Russia was the global leader in hypersonic missiles, whose speed, maneuverability and altitude make them difficult to track and intercept,” Al Jazeera reported Sunday.
“The Kinzhal missiles are part of an array of weapons unveiled in 2018,” the report said. “Russia first used the hypersonic missile during its military campaign in Syria in 2016.”
The reports clearly show that Russia is pleased with these headlines. It wants to reverse the war effort, and the battle for the image of the war is important.
Russia can’t win over any hearts and minds in the West with its brutal war, but it can use new weapons to strike fear into the West.
The US has already noted with concern China’s development of new missiles and platforms. Moscow wants to be seen as a near-peer rival to Washington.
The slow going in Ukraine has not helped Russia’s image. In fact, every day of slow progress shows that its war machine has serious problems. Russia’s invasion has sparked renewed concern in NATO, and countries such as Germany are now plowing money into defense.
The big question is what else Russia has up its sleeve. It may be running out of some other munitions. It has used cruise missiles and other types of surface-to-surface missiles.
In general, Russia does not seem to be well supplied with drones and appears afraid of committing its best aircraft or tanks. It knows that if it lets its gold-plated units be mauled in Ukraine, it would be doubly embarrassing.
Russia, therefore, chooses the worst of both worlds: sending weaker units to be destroyed, looking like it is failing and using weapons like the hypersonic missile in piecemeal fashion.
This is not the way to win a war, but Russia may not want to win. It may want to destroy Ukraine and then force it to fight an endless war against the Russian invader. This would allow Moscow to test more weapons on the Ukrainian battlefield.