Russia-Ukraine War Ukrainian Forces Grow More Adept at Defending Against Russian Drones

By January 3, 2023 Mailchimp, News, Print

As published by the New York Times

Ukraine shot down all of the exploding drones that Russia had fired over the new year, an Air Force spokesman said on Tuesday, in a measure of the country’s growing ability to resist Moscow’s effort to incapacitate its energy infrastructure.

“Such results have never been achieved before,” the spokesman, Yurii Ihnat, said on Ukrainian television, referring to the nights of Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

Russia launched its latest swarm of the Iranian-made weapons, nicknamed “flying mo-peds” for their relatively slow speed, at targets inside Ukraine on Monday. None reached their destination because of antiaircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles and warplanes, a rare shutout. Twenty drones were downed over Kyiv alone.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said his military began the new year by putting up stiff resistance to the unmanned attacks from above.

“Only two days have passed since the beginning of the year, and the number of Iranian drones shot down over Ukraine is already more than 80,” Mr. Zelensky said late Monday in his nightly address.

In October, about a month after Russia began deploying the Shahed drones, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister said that they were shooting down more than 70 percent of the drones.

As winter bites, the fighting on the ground in Ukraine has become a war of attrition, and the focus has shifted to the struggle in the air over Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and other major cities.

Russia has launched wave after wave of drone and cruise missile attacks aimed at knocking out electricity and water supplies to civilians, leaving as much as 25 percent of the nation without power at times. Monday’s drone attack is the latest in a series of year-end assaults, including one that killed three civilians on New Year’s Eve.

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Ihor Sukhovii, 36, clearing his belongings from his house in Kyiv, damaged by Russian missile strikes on Sunday.
Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Given that Ukraine’s defensive measures cost more than Russia’s aerial attack methods, some military experts fear a growing imbalance that could, over time, favor Russia. In his nightly address on Monday, Mr. Zelensky said his government had intelligence suggesting that there was no end in sight to the Russian attacks using Shaheds.

“We have information that Russia is planning a prolonged attack with Shaheds,” he said, according to a transcript put out by his office. “Its bet may be on exhaustion — on exhaustion of our people, our air defense, our energy sector.”

But, with each attack, Ukraine’s forces are getting better at taking out the drones before they hit their target, giving Ukraine what Mr. Zelensky called small “victories over terrorists and terror.”

“Each shot-down drone, each shot-down missile, each day with electricity for our people and minimal schedules of blackouts are exactly such victories,” he said.

One reason for the success against the drone campaign might be the United State’s decision in early November to provide Ukrainewith an advanced surface-to-air missile system, known as NASAMS. It includes radar, sensors, launchers and a mobile command center.

According to the Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security, a Ukrainian government agency, the American missile system played a role in Monday’s assault.

“Despite having learned to operate them only a few weeks ago, our military used them almost like artillery, reloading them as fast as possible,” the center said on Twitter. “The highly successful use of these weapons show that our soldiers learn fast.”

Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired C.I.A. officer, said training had helped Ukrainian forces get better and better at managing sophisticated weaponry.

Russia, on the other hand, he said, seemed to be giving up on the idea of winning the war with a traditional land fight, at least in the near future.

“It appears their fallback is just to blow the country to smithereens,” he said. “You can’t win a war by airstrikes.”

Victoria Kim contributed reporting.

In Russia, critics of the military avoid directing their ire at Putin after the Makiivka attack.

 

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Mourners laying flowers in memory of the Russian soldiers who were killed in Makiivka, Ukraine, in Samara, Russia, on Tuesday.
Credit…Albert Dzen/Reuters
Mourners laying flowers in memory of the Russian soldiers who were killed in Makiivka, Ukraine, in Samara, Russia, on Tuesday.

 

As Russia took stock of one of its worst military losses since the invasion of Ukraine, the initial outpouring of anger began to settle into a familiar pattern on Tuesday, focusing on the West, and on what critics describe as incompetent officials rather than the man overseeing the war effort: President Vladimir V. Putin.

Relatives of mobilized soldiers who died or went missing in the rocket strike on their base in the occupied Ukrainian town of Makiivka gathered in the central Russia city of Samara, where military bloggers say many were from, to lay flowers at a military memorial, videos posted by local media and state television showed.

The regional governor of Samara flew to Moscow on Tuesday to meet with military officials, underlining the gravity of the losses, which the Russian Defense Ministry puts at 63 dead servicemen, though Ukrainian officials say the toll is as much as 400. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.

Despite an extraordinary crackdown on dissent, Ukraine’s battlefield successes have left some opponents of the Kremlin’s handling of the war newly emboldened. With state media muzzled and the opposition largely jailed or exiled, Russia’s military bloggers have emerged as the some of the most influential critics of the war effort, but even they have steered clear of taking on Mr. Putin directly.

Military bloggers said the high death toll in the Makiivka attack could have been minimized if commanding officers followed basic precautions, such as spreading out the recently arrived soldiers around the area and imposing stricter barrack discipline, including preventing the use of cellphones, which they say helped the Ukrainians pinpoint their location. It was the latest in a series of errors by the Russian military command that has contributed to the deaths of soldiers and the loss of a large part of Russia’s occupied territory in Ukraine.

At the memorial service in Samara, about a hundred participants waved Russian flags, coordinated aid collection for survivors and called for revenge, according to videos and local media reports. Local media did not mention any criticism of the officials responsible for the war.

“The entire West has closed ranks against us in order to destroy us,” Yekaterina Kolotovkina, the head of a soldiers’ humanitarian fund and the wife of a Russian general fighting in Ukraine told the Samara rally, echoing a main theme of state propaganda.

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Workers removed debris from the destroyed building in Makiivka on Tuesday.
Credit…Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

“For the first time since the start of the special military operation, I asked my husband to take revenge for the tears of the widows,” she added, using the Russian government’s euphemism for the war. “We will not forgive, victory will be ours.”

On social media, initial calls by pro-war Russian commentators to charge officials responsible for the Makiivka losses with treason gave way to more guarded criticism of local military decisions and advice for avoiding future disasters. None appeared to direct criticism toward Mr. Putin, with veiled criticism more often aimed at his senior officials.

“Yes, Vladimir Vladimirovich, we love our country,” wrote influential Russian military blogger Anastasia Kashevarova, a native of the Samara region on Monday night, referring to Mr. Putin. “I love Russia so much that I hate specific personas in your entourage.”

State television has downplayed the strike or ignored it completely, minimizing the reaction to the disaster among the public.

Ruslan Leviev, a Russian military analyst, said the speed with which the Defense Ministry issued a statement with estimated losses suggested the government is trying to control the narrative and prevent it from feeding wider social discontent.

“Everyone is calling for reaction at the highest level, some conclusions, punishments,” he said. “But I doubt that any of it will come.”

But the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group that studies the conflict, said in its latest daily report on Monday that “profound military failures” such as Makiivka could make it harder for Mr. Putin to placate concerns among some vocal war supporters that Russia’s military effort is under control.

“Putin’s inability to address the criticism and fix the flaws in Russia’s military campaign may undermine his credibility as a hands-on war leader,” the group said.

Shashank Bengali contributed reporting.

Activist who removed Banksy mural from Kyiv suburb could face prison, police say.

 

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A mural by the British street artist Banksy was removed by a group of activists from the wall of a destroyed building in the Kyiv suburb of Hostomel in December.
Credit…Genya Savilov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A mural by the British street artist Banksy was removed by a group of activists from the wall of a destroyed building in the Kyiv suburb of Hostomel in December.

 

An activist who removed a mural painted by the reclusive British street artist Banksy from a war-ravaged building in a Kyiv suburb could face up to a dozen years in prison for theft, the Ukrainian authorities said in a statement released on Facebook.

The mural, showing a woman in a bathrobe wearing a gas mask and holding a fire extinguisher, garnered widespread attention when it appeared in the Kyiv suburb of Hostomel in November. It was one of seven artworks painted by Banksy on war-ravaged buildings in and around Kyiv.

On Dec. 2, a group of activists removed the mural, the police said in a statement. The authorities arrested several people in connection with the removal.

The statement, put out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs on Monday, said that the mural was valued at more than 9 million Ukrainian hryvnia, the national currency, or about $245,000. It said one activist, described as the organizer, could face up to 12 years in prison for removing the mural.

While the police did not identify the individual who could face jail time, one of the activists, Serhiy Dovhyi, had previously said that he was facing a criminal investigation for removing the work. Mr. Dovhyi said in an interview with The New York Times last month that he intended to auction it and donate the proceeds to the Ukrainian Army.

In the interview, he defended his actions, saying the artwork had to be saved because the wall on which it was painted was scheduled to be demolished. He described the act of removing the graffiti, which he documented in videos, as an additional act of performance art that might add to its value.

“Street art, in contrast to a piece of art in the Louvre, doesn’t belong to anyone,” Mr. Dovhyi told The Times.

The authorities, however, maintained that the mural should have remained on the wall, to be part of a future memorial or building.

It isn’t the first time ownership of one of Banksy’s works has been in dispute. In 2014, a Banksy painting appeared on a piece of plywood secured to the Broad Plain Boys Club in Bristol, England. The club’s owner, Dennis Stinchcombe, planned to auction the painting to raise money for the club, but the city stepped in and claimed it owned the depiction of a couple embracing and staring at their cellphones. In a rare public move, Banksy wrote a letter saying the art should be used to help the club.

A U.S.-made long-range rocket system has helped give Ukraine momentum in the war.

 

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The Ukrainian military firing a rocket from a HIMARS near the frontline in the Kherson region in Ukraine.
Credit…Hannibal Hanschke/EPA, via Shutterstock
The Ukrainian military firing a rocket from a HIMARS near the frontline in the Kherson region in Ukraine.

 

Since the earliest weeks of the war, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has pleaded to any government that would listen that his country was outgunned by Russia’s army. If Ukraine was going to survive, he said, it needed longer range weapons.

Answering that call in June, Washington delivered the first batch of truck-mounted, multiple-rocket launchers known as HIMARS, which fire satellite-guided rockets with a range of around 50 miles, greater than anything Ukraine had previously possessed.

Since then, these weapons have helped Ukraine shift the momentum of the war.

On Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said that 63 service members died on New Year’s Day in an attack on a building in Donetsk Province that officials on both sides said was carried out using a HIMARS system. Ukraine’s military estimated hundreds had been killed in the attack.

The HIMARS system — the acronym stands for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System — is most effective when deployed against stationary targets that can be identified in advance and pinpointed, such as ammunition dumps, infrastructure, or concentrations of troops. The United States has so far supplied Ukraine with at least 20 HIMARS systems, which are made by Lockheed Martin.

Ukrainian forces started to deploy the rocket launchers last summer as part of a counter offensive to recapture land in the southern region of Kherson.

Starting in late July, Ukraine used the artillery rocket system to attack the Antonivsky Bridge, cutting a key supply line for thousands of troops Moscow had stationed in the city Kherson on the west bank of the Dnipro River. Eventually, the Kremlin ordered its forces to withdraw from the city.

“They patiently destroyed Russian logistics and command-and-control, making it impossible for Russia to maintain forces on the west bank of the Dnipro,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, in an analysis of the war published on Substack.

Western military analysts said that Monday’s strike reflected a shift in tactics. Ukraine’s commanders had been using the rockets mostly to hit ammunition dumps and supply lines, but recently they have targeted more barracks and other troop concentrations, said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va.

“The influx of mobilized personnel at the front lines has visibly made them vulnerable to strikes,” he said.

Mr. Kofman said the recent HIMARS strikes have had less overall impact in the war than when they were first introduced over the summer and reduced Russia’s advantage in artillery.

So far, the rocket launchers have not led to big changes to the front lines in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine where Monday’s deadly strike on a school being used as a barracks happened. Russia has controlled much of the territory since 2014 and has significant defenses.

But the rocket launchers have been used to hit other troop concentrations in the east. Russia’s state news agency, Tass, said in December that a HIMARS struck a hotel in Luhansk Province. Ukrainian authorities said the hotel was a base for Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group, which has played a significant role in Moscow’s campaign in Donbas.

Mr. O’Brien argued that weapons like the HIMARS will likely be important as the war enters its second year.

“The first step of any Ukrainian road to victory will be the continuation of this great wasting stage we are in, ” he wrote, adding that Ukraine “will rely mostly on ranged weapons to methodically dismantle the Russian forces facing them.”

Firefighters in embattled Bakhmut are ‘doing what we did before the war, which is helping people here.’

 

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Firefighters filling their truck with water from a lake in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Monday.
Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times
Firefighters filling their truck with water from a lake in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Monday.

 

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A fire truck driving toward the city center.
Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times
A fire truck driving toward the city center.

 

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Residents passing damaged buildings after collecting supplies.
Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times
Residents passing damaged buildings after collecting supplies.

 

Emergency service workers are the last line of defense in the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, where the sound of outgoing and incoming fire is relentless, even during what firefighters consider a calm stretch.

Only five workers remain in Bakhmut, but they rotate with another group of five every two days.

“Our lives have been under a lot of pressure,” said Yevhenii Yevtushenko, 36, who is the head of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Bakhmut. “It’s a very intense situation here, as we are under constant shelling from the late morning until evening, and even through the night. There are only a few hours in a day where the situation is somewhat calm.”

Bakhmut has been heavily contested between Russian and Ukrainian forces for months. At least 90 percent of the city’s 73,000 people have fled as shelling has intensified, causing a high number of casualties on both sides.

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Firefighters delivering water to a humanitarian aid station.
Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

A heaviness hangs over the mostly empty streets. At a humanitarian aid station, several dozen people huddled around their only connection to the outside world: a Starlink internet device.

With so few staff, the firefighters have to make decisions about what to respond to, especially when a fire rages, as they may only have the capacity to contain the flames and prevent the spread. But the most difficult situations, according to Mr. Yevtushenko, are when they have to dig under the rubble to search for missing people after a strike.

“You have to work as quickly as possible to rescue people, but sometimes it’s impossible because you have to try and do everything according to the rules to protect yourself,” he said.

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Destroyed shops.
Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

The remaining men don’t see themselves as heroes. “We’re doing what we did before the war, which is helping people here,” Mr. Yevtushenko said. “That’s it.”

Back at their base, the unmistakable sound of an incoming round echoed through the halls. A resident arrived five minutes later to plead for first aid for a woman who was injured in the doorway of a shopping center. But it was too late: Shrapnel had killed her and two dogs. The daily rhythm of life continued in Bakhmut, even on what was considered a calm day.

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