The biggest Russian airstrikes against Ukraine since the start of the war killed at least 19 people, drove thousands of Ukrainians back into air raid shelters and knocked out electricity in hundreds of towns and villages. The strikes, denounced in the West for deliberately hitting civilian targets, have been hailed by hawks in Moscow as a turning point demonstrating Russia's resolve in its "special military operation" in Ukraine.
But Western military analysts say the strikes came at a staggering cost, depleted a dwindling supply of long-range missiles, hit no major military targets and are unlikely to change the course of a war going badly for Moscow.
"Russia lacks the missiles to mount attacks of this sort often, as it is running out of stocks and the Ukrainians are claiming a high success rate in intercepting many of those already used," wrote emeritus professor of war studies Lawrence Freedman at King's College London.
"This is not, therefore, a new war-winning strategy but a sociopath's tantrum."
Russian portrayal of attacks
Meanwhile, opening the meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group at the headquarters of Nato in Brussels, United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia’s massive wave of missile attacks this week had laid bare the “malice and cruelty” of its war. Ukraine had shifted the momentum in the conflict since September with “extraordinary” gains, but would need more help to keep fighting, he said.
“These victories belong to Ukraine’s brave soldiers. But the Contact Group’s security assistance, training, and sustainment efforts have been vital,” Austin said.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia’s missile attacks were a sign of weakness by a country facing the prospect of losing the war.
“The reality is that they’re not able to make progress on the battlefield. Russia is actually losing on the battlefield,” Stoltenberg said. “Ukraine has the momentum and continues to make significant gains, while Russia is increasingly resorting to horrific and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and critical infrastructure.”
President Vladimir Putin described the strikes as a response to what he called terrorist attacks by Ukraine, including a blast on Sunday that damaged Russia's bridge to Crimea, which it built after annexing the peninsula it seized in 2014.
Russian hawks had been demanding for weeks that Putin escalate the conflict, and many of them hailed Monday's attacks.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin loyalist leader of Russia's Chechnya region who had lately called for military commanders to be sacked, said he was now 100 per cent behind the strategy.
Margarita Simonyan, head of Russian media RT, said Moscow had been waiting for the perfect time to demonstrate its strength. Quoting a proverb, she posted on Twitter: "A Russian harnesses his horses slowly but drives them quickly."
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Putin's advisory security council, said Russia would now be able to widen its objectives. "The goal of our future actions, in my view, should be the complete dismantling of the political regime of Ukraine," he said.
Ukraine says Russia fired 83 cruise missiles on Monday and 28 on Tuesday, and that it shot down at least 43 of them on Monday and 20 on Tuesday. Moscow said it fired more than 70 and all its targets were hit.
Both sides say the attack was on a huge scale, unseen at least since Russia's initial wave of air strikes on the first night of the war in February.
Each Kalibr cruise missile is estimated to cost more than US$6.5 million (S$9.3 million), meaning Moscow fired around half a billion dollars worth of missiles on Monday alone.
Western military analysts have no firm figures for how many missiles Russia has left, but for months have pointed to indicators suggesting the supply is limited.
As far back as July, the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Joseph Dempsey and Douglas Barrie noted that Russia was increasingly using anti-ship missiles to strike targets on the ground. This "suggests that Moscow is having to muster its remaining conventionally armed land attack cruise missile resources more carefully", they wrote.
Can Ukraine protect itself?
President Volodymyr Zelensky said securing more air defences for Ukraine was his No. 1 priority. Western leaders including US President Joe Biden have promised more systems, though it takes time to deliver them.
Ukraine now relies on Soviet-era air defence systems such as the S-300. Washington promised several months ago to send its sophisticated NASAMS system. It said on Tuesday it was speeding up the shipment after saying in late September that delivery was still around two months away.
Ukraine also received on Tuesday the first of four IRIS-T air defence systems promised by Germany, a German defence ministry source said, confirming a report by Der Spiegel magazine.
In practice, military experts say Ukraine will probably never be able to defend its entire land area, the second largest in Europe after Russia, from attacks on scattered low-priority targets.
Air defences, such as the US Patriot missile system, are designed mainly to protect specific, high-priority targets. They can provide broader protection but over a comparatively small area, such as Israel's vaunted "Iron Dome" system which protects a country around one-twentieth the size of Ukraine.
"Bottom line: Just like it was difficult to stop Saddam from launching Scuds, and as much as we want to help Ukraine, it's challenging to completely counter all Putin's war crimes that unfortunately include launching missile strikes against civilian targets," Mark Hertling, a former commander of US land forces in Europe, posted on Twitter.
Still, Monday's attacks appear to show that Ukraine is already far from defenceless. While Kyiv's claim to have shot down more than half of the missiles is impossible to verify, Russia did not hit any target with the highest strategic value, such as leadership buildings in the capital, which are likely to have been best protected.
Russia still faces the same strategic difficulties it did before Monday's attacks: demoralised and poorly equipped forces spread along a 1,000km frontline, with long supply lines vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks.
Initial Russian advantages, above all the massive firepower of its artillery, allowed it to destroy and capture cities in May-July, but since September, its artillery-heavy forces have proven a poor match for defending occupied territory from mobile and increasingly well-equipped Ukrainian units.
Moscow still lacks control over Ukrainian air space, which would allow for the intensive strikes by jet and helicopter that helped it defeat rebels in Syria and Chechnya.
Ben Hodges, another former commander of US ground forces in Europe, said that despite Monday's attacks, Ukraine still appeared to have "irreversible momentum" on the battlefield.
"Russia's logistics system is exhausted and no Russian wants to fight in Putin's war in Ukraine," he said on Twitter.