December 29, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Russia launches biggest missile and drone strike since beginning of war

Institute for the Study of War

Russian forces conducted the largest series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion on the morning of December 29. Ukrainian military sources reported that Russian forces launched 36 Shahed-136/131 drones and over 120 missiles of various sizes at industrial and military facilities and critical infrastructure in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia, and Odesa cities and Sumy, Cherkasy, and Mykolaiv oblasts. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched a total of 160 projectiles at Ukraine and that Ukrainian forces downed 27 Shaheds and 88 Kh-101, Kh-555, and Kh-55 missiles. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi reported that Russian forces first launched the 36 Shahed drones from the northern, southeastern, and western directions in the early hours of December 29. Zaluzhnyi reported that Russian strategic aircraft and bombers later launched at least 90 Kh-101, Kh-555, and Kh-55 cruise missiles and eight Kh-22 and Kh-32 missiles. Russian forces also struck Kharkiv City with modified S-300 air defense missiles and launched a total of 14 S-300, S-400, and Iskander-M ballistic missiles from occupied Crimea and Russia. Zaluzhnyi reported that Russian forces also launched five Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles, four Kh-31P anti-radar missiles, and one Kh-59 cruise missile at unspecified targets in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reported that Russian forces struck civilian infrastructure such as a maternity hospital, educational institutions, a shopping center, a commercial warehouse, and residential buildings in cities throughout Ukraine.

The strike package that Russian forces launched on December 29 appears to be a culmination of several months of Russian experimentation with various drone and missile combinations and efforts to test Ukrainian air defenses. Over the past several months, Russian forces have conducted a series of missile and drone strikes of varying sizes, using various combinations of drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. In most of the more recent strikes, Russian forces notably used either exclusively Shahed-136/131 type drones or a majority of Shahed drones accompanied by a smaller number of missiles. In contrast, the December 29 strike package included 36 Shahed drones and 120 missiles of various sizes. Ukrainian military officials, including Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat, have long noted that Russian forces frequently use Shahed-type drones to probe Ukrainian air defense and determine what strike routes most effectively circumvent Ukrainian air defense clusters. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Deputy Chief Major General Vadym Skibitskyi also notably assessed on August 28 that Russian forces were likely employing strike packages comprised of more drones than missiles in order to determine flight paths that bypass Ukrainian air defenses and allow other projectiles to more reliably reach their intended targets. ISW assessed on October 21 that Russian forces were likely diversifying the mix of missiles, glide bombs, and drones used in strike packages in order to determine weaknesses in Ukrainian air defense coverage to optimize a strike package such as the one that Russian forces launched on December 29. Russia was likely deliberately stockpiling missiles of various sizes through the fall and early winter of 2023 in order to build a more diverse strike package and apply lessons learned over the course of various recent reconnaissance and probing missions—namely using Shahed drones to bypass Ukrainian air defenses while utilizing missiles to inflict maximal damage on intended targets. Ukrainian forces notably did not intercept any of the Kh-22/Kh-32 missiles, ballistic missiles (S-300s and Iskander-Ms), Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles (Kh-47s), Kh-31P anti-radar missiles, or Kh-59 cruise missiles that Russian forces launched on December 29, which suggests that Russian forces have been able to successfully apply some lessons learned about effective strike package combinations and that the Shaheds that preceded the missiles may have distracted Ukrainian air defenses or otherwise enabled the strike.

Key Takeaways

  • Russian forces conducted the largest series of missile and drone strikes against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion on the morning of December 29.
  • The strike package that Russian forces launched on December 29 appears to be a culmination of several months of Russian experimentation with various drone and missile combinations and efforts to test Ukrainian air defenses.
  • Russia will continue to conduct strikes against Ukraine at scale in an effort to degrade Ukrainian morale and Ukraine’s ability to sustain its war effort against Russia.
  • Current Russian missile and drone reserves and production rates likely do not allow Russian forces to conduct regular large-scale missile strikes, but likely do allow for more consistent drone strikes, which can explain the recent pattern of Russian strike packages.
  • The Kremlin’s efforts to sufficiently mobilize Russia’s defense industrial base (DIB) in support of its wartime objectives, including large-scale strike series, may been more successful than Western officials previously assessed due in part to Russia’s ability to procure military equipment from its partners and the redistribution of Russia’s resources for military production purposes.
  • Russian forces have likely routinely attempted to draw and fix limited Ukrainian air defense systems away from the front, and the Russian strikes on December 29 follow recent indications that Ukrainian air defenses may be presenting significant challenges to Russian aviation operations along the frontline.
  • Western aid remains vital for Ukraine’s ability to defend against Russian strikes, and the end of such aid would likely set conditions for an expanded Russian air campaign In Ukraine.
  • Western leaders largely viewed the massive Russian strike as evidence that Putin’s maximalist goals in Ukraine remain unchanged, in line with ISW’s long-standing assessment that Putin is not genuinely interested in a ceasefire or any sort of negotiated settlement in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces made recent confirmed advances northeast of Bakhmut and south of Avdiivka as positional engagements continued across the entire line of contact.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on December 29 that it has completed Russia’s autumn 2023 conscription cycle, which began on October 1.
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