In the snow-filled skies above Ukraine, a deadly game is playing out.
Russia began the new year with a barrage of air attacks, including the heaviest night of missile strikes since the war began, as Ukraine battles to meet an evolving threat with its limited supply of Western defense systems.
International analysts say the onslaught of Russian missiles, stockpiled for months, aims to overwhelm Ukraine’s limited missile defense.
This approach has had some success. According to the Ukrainian authorities, Ukraine only managed to shoot down 18 of the 51 missiles fired at the country on January 8.
New tactics have also come into play.
Some changes are simple: Russia has started painting its Iranian-made drones black, camouflaging them against the night sky.
With Ukrainian media reports of jet-powered drones replacing Russia’s slower propeller-powered models, officials have acknowledged it’s a threat that’s on their radar.
Speaking on national TV, Ukrainian air force command spokesperson Yurii Ihnat said a jet-powered version of the Iranian Shahed drones favored by Moscow would function “like a mini cruise missile.”
They are likely to have a smaller payload but much faster cruising speeds, perhaps more than 500 kilometers per hour (311 miles per hour), he said, making them harder to shoot down. Ukrainian officials haven’t yet confirmed if these drones have been used in Ukraine.
Every shoot-down is a victory
In a frozen field outside Kyiv, soldiers conducted drills with a mobile air defense truck, ready to fire within minutes of pulling up.
“They used to fly in a single trajectory, but now they zigzag. A drone can fly, then circle, hover, go down completely, then rise about half a kilometer, then fly sharply down. They are now very maneuverable and must be seen and destroyed,” Yasinsky said of the Iranian Shaheds.
On cloudy nights, the defenders can be forced to use their ears more than their eyes to aim, listening out for the tell-tale whine of the Shahed’s motor engine.
But it’s small, mobile units like Yasinsky’s that Ukraine is counting on to protect civilians and key infrastructure, especially from the slow-flying drones.
Sited within a network of advanced Western missile defense systems, like the American Patriot or German IRIS-T batteries – best suited to deal with the fastest Russian missiles – these small teams provide cheaper, more plentiful muscle to the defense of Ukraine’s skies.
But they’re still grateful for the weapons.
In videos of Ukrainian air defense units downing drones or missiles, the joy in the soldiers’ voices is almost child-like.
Every hit likely saves Ukrainian lives or infrastructure and helps to chip away at Russia’s resources.
In January, US officials revealed Russia’s use of North Korean ballistic missiles in attacks on Ukrainian cities, likely a sign of the pressure on Moscow’s stockpiles and domestic production of long-range weaponry.
Ukrainian authorities are still analyzing debris from the latest strikes to discern the missiles’ origin.
Defenses stretched to the limit
The deadly strikes were preceded by flocks of drones and individual missiles along different routes, pawns sacrificed to map Ukrainian defenses and weak spots, he said.
“It is defense industry facilities that are targeted now. And though it is not officially admitted, a substantial share of these missiles reached their targets,” he said, also noting that the effectiveness of each interceptor missile fired at incoming Russian projectiles is high.
The Ukrainian air defense is working “at the edge of its capacity,” Melnyk said, often hitting more than 70% of its targets and sometimes all of them.
Stopping more missiles would require more interceptor missile batteries, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday his country is “sorely lacking.” Ukraine is currently unable to produce modern air defense systems with its partners, he said.
But in order to stem the tide of Russian fire, Ukraine needs to target Moscow’s batteries across the border – a tough challenge, given Kyiv’s limited access to long-range missiles or artillery systems of its own.
“Russia is learning its lessons,” Melnyk said, sending missiles to where it knew they could not be intercepted.
Images of Kyiv commuters crowded into the city’s subway system during the early January air raids evoked painful memories of last winter’s onslaught by Russia from the air.
A small number of Ukrainians have died in January’s attacks, but the country is still smarting from the 33 people killed in Kyiv on December 29 in strikes that destroyed 100 houses and 45 high-rise buildings, according to Ukraine’s president.
In response, Zelensky vowed to “bring the war” back to Russia.
Despite the joy in blunting Russia’s attacks in the air when his comrades score hits, “Smeta,” a soldier in an air defense unit outside Kyiv, still feels the pain of each missile they can’t bring down to earth.