Russia is trying to make Ukraine suffer before air defense arrives - analysis

Increased Russian attacks on Ukraine over the weekend resulted in the death of four people including a toddler.

 Rescuers work at a site of residential houses heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv, December 8, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/Vitalii Hnidyi)
Rescuers work at a site of residential houses heavily damaged by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv, December 8, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Vitalii Hnidyi)

Russia has increased its missile attacks on Ukraine to try to harm civilian life by striking at the electric grid and other infrastructure.

Reports said that Ukraine’s Kharkiv was left without power over the weekend due to the attacks, and local officials said that as many as nine power facilities were hit as Russian forces fired 76 missiles and carried out drone attacks on Friday.

According to the Associated Press, “Ukraine’s capital came under one of the biggest attacks of the war on Friday as Russia’s invading forces fired dozens of missiles across the country, triggering widespread power outages, Ukrainian officials said.”

The head of the Ukrainian armed forces said they intercepted 60 of 76 missiles launched. Nevertheless, the barrages continue to do harm as some missiles get through Ukraine’s air defenses. This comes as the US and other nations continue to support Ukraine, and it appears Ukraine will get better air defenses next year.  

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has said more attacks are expected. Russia purposely targets Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and has increased the attacks during the cold winter to make civilians suffer. This is putting a strain on Ukraine’s attempts to repair its electric grid and restore electricity.  

 Rescuers work at the site of a residential building damaged by a Russian missile, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine December 16, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/MYKOLA SYNELNYKOV) Rescuers work at the site of a residential building damaged by a Russian missile, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine December 16, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/MYKOLA SYNELNYKOV)

The question now becomes whether Russia has a plan beyond merely attacking civilians and trying to cut off power and water during the winter. Russia has sometimes alternated between hinting at an agreement regarding the conflict, and also escalating against Ukraine. Russia’s mixed messaging leave many wondering what Moscow will do now.  

What are the possible ways to read into this?

One narrative about Russia’s war is that Russia has been failing in Ukraine and that it didn’t expect the West’s reaction. In this reading of the story, Russia is humiliated and it is trying to save face. It doesn’t want to be seen as to lose and may be forced to escalate if it feels cornered. This reading of Moscow’s reactions is also the one that is worried about Moscow using nuclear weapons.

But there is another take on Russia’s war that sees it as entirely designed to harm Ukraine, destroy its infrastructure and try to use attrition to sap its will to fight. In this strategy, Russia is trying to make Ukraine suffer during the winter merely for the sake of making Ukraine suffer. If it can get some kind of agreement and keep parts of Ukraine under Moscow’s control then it has succeeded. In this scenario, the real goal of Moscow is to prolong the war or create a frozen conflict.

Russia has already decided that the West will likely send more weapons to Ukraine but it gambles that this won’t be enough to push Russia back.  

In the end, the Russian decision to increase the missile attacks is clearly designed to try to exact a price from Ukraine during the winter months. Whether Russia then launches another trial balloon aimed at negotiations or makes new threats about “nuclear” conflict, is a question of time.

Russia still feels confident about Ukraine and it is waging the war on Ukraine’s soil, while Moscowovites live life as usual. For Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin the goal has been to keep ordinary Russians living a normal life. In contrast to the people without power in Ukraine, Russia feels it has succeeded in these dark winter months.