Ukraine can't stop Russian attacks on critical infrastructure: Patriots missing and anti-aircraft dome no longer protecting cities

After destroying part of the surface-to-air defence systems that the West sent to Kiev last year, the Kremlin now intends to de-energise Ukrainian cities, making them uninhabitable
Una anciana recoge plásticos para tapar las ventanas de su casa, arrancadas tras un bombardeo ruso en Kiev a finales de marzo - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA
An elderly woman collects plastic sheeting to cover the windows of her house, which were ripped out after Russian shelling in Kiev in late March - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA
  1. 4,500 guided aerial bombs
  2. MIM-104 Patriot
  3. Testing laboratories
  4. De-energising Ukraine
  5. Appeal to Europe

The alert message vibrated the mobile phone at 2:30 in the morning: "Russian bombers are in the air. There may be a massive bombing in the next few hours". Two terse sentences, but frightening enough for thousands of Ukrainians to leave their homes in the middle of the night and head for the metro stations, which function as air-raid shelters in Kiev. At 5 a.m. the first explosions could be heard. Then came the sirens of fire engines and ambulances. 

This sequence - from one of the latest bombings to hit the capital - has been a daily occurrence in Ukraine's main cities for several months. Cities which, despite being far from the front line, have become a new battlefield.  

The escalation of attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets - mainly critical infrastructure, but also residential buildings, hospitals and schools - is now reaching levels reminiscent of the first months of the full-scale Russian invasion.  

In March alone, more than 600 civilians have been killed or injured - a 20% increase over the previous month - according to the latest report of the UN human rights monitoring mission, published a few days ago.  

No city is safe in Ukraine today. From Kiev to Odessa, via Dnipro, Kherson, Poltava, Sumy or Zaporiyia. And special mention should be made of Kharkiv, the country's second largest city and the one that is bearing the brunt of the fighting because of its proximity to Russia, with whom it shares a border.   

Destrozos en un barrio residencial de Kiev tras uno de los bombardeos masivos que el Kremlin está lanzando contra las ciudades ucranianas - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA
Damage in a residential neighbourhood in Kiev after one of the Kremlin's massive bombardments of Ukrainian cities - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA

"Kharkiv needs robust air defence. The world has no right to remain indifferent while Russia deliberately destroys the city on a daily basis, and murders people in their homes," President Zelenski said indignantly after the latest massive bombardment of the city. 

4,500 guided aerial bombs

Russia's use of guided aerial bombs and ballistic missiles - very difficult to neutralise once airborne - has been a turning point in this war, which has entered its third year with very dark prospects for the civilian population. 

The figures are dizzying: Putin fired 190 missiles, 140 Shahed suicide drones and more than 600 aerial bombs in the last week, and Ukraine cannot stop it all. So far this year, more than 4,500 of these guided aerial bombs have been counted, and this is 16 times more than in the same period in 2023. 

While Russia's arsenal is multiplying - nourished by countries such as Iran and North Korea - Ukraine's is shrinking with each passing day. With US aid blocked and European aid trickling in, time is against the Ukrainians. In addition to the shortage of ammunition on the front lines, the Ukrainians have lost some of the air defence systems that used to keep their cities safe. 

It is an open secret that of the five Patriot systems that Ukraine received in 2023, only two remain operational. The last would have been hit by Russia this March, when Zelensky's army moved these launchers closer to the front line in order to shoot down the Kremlin's bomber planes. 

Operarios públicos de Kiev trabajan para reparar el socavón que ha dejado los restos de un misil ruso - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA
Public workers in Kiev work to repair a sinkhole left by the wreckage of a Russian missile - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA

MIM-104 Patriot

When Zelensky began receiving the first "Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target" missile defence systems - better known by their acronym "Patriot" - the number of attacks on civilian targets in major cities dropped dramatically. The capital, Kiev, appeared to be 'armoured' and its residents felt some relief for the first time since the invasion began. 

The Biden administration had refused for months to provide these Patriots to Ukraine, believing it would provoke a greater response from Moscow and an escalation of hostilities. But the escalation was already underway and these surface-to-air missiles finally helped stop it.  

The Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target is one of the most advanced and reliable surface-to-air systems in the world. It was conceived in the late 1960s in the United States, and Raytheon began manufacturing them in 1976. They have been deployed since 1984 and have since been sold to countries such as Israel, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Poland and Japan.

They are effective in shooting down enemy aircraft, as well as ballistic missiles - as seen on the ground in Ukraine. A single Patriot battery consists of a radar, a command post, support vehicles and six to eight launchers. Each launcher can be armed with up to 16 MSE anti-missile launchers. The maximum number of launchers in a battery allows for a full salvo of 128 MSEs. 

It is sometimes necessary to launch several anti-missiles simultaneously to intercept a single ballistic target, and each MSE missile costs around 4 million dollars. So it is an effective but expensive system that is also in short supply. The global production rate is 450 MSEs per year, which is not enough to meet current demand. 

Testing laboratories

It was the Netherlands that supplied Ukraine with the first two Patriot launchers in April 2023, following Russia's first bombing campaign against the Ukrainian power grid, which caused blackouts and heating outages across the country during the freezing winter of 2022. Germany and the US would provide the rest later. 

Trabajos de reparación dentro de la Central Eléctrica 3 de Járkiv, tras un bombardeo ruso en octubre de 2022 - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA
Repair work inside Kharkiv Power Plant 3 after Russian shelling in October 2022 - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA

US forces also trained Ukrainian troops in the use of these anti-aircraft systems - it takes 90 people to operate a single Patriot battery. The training was highly successful and, only a month after they entered service, a Russian Kinzhal ballistic missile (valued at about 10 million dollars) was reportedly shot down. 

At the time, US defence officials themselves confirmed to the press the effectiveness of the Patriot against the Kinzhal, revealing that the Ukrainians had reportedly made modifications to the Patriot's software that allowed the hypersonic missiles to be tracked. 

After seeing their effectiveness in Ukraine, the demand for these systems for use in air defence will spread around the world. But the challenge, once again, is the speed of production, and not just of the launchers, but also of the MSE projectiles, which are the only ones it can fire.

The West has also sent Norwegian-designed NASAMS batteries - three times cheaper than Patriots - to Ukraine, but they do not have the same versatility. This war and continued massive Russian attacks have allowed the capabilities of these systems to be quickly gauged, and while NASAMS work against cruise missiles and suicide drones, they cannot neutralise ballistic ones.  

De-energising Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has revitalised - and revolutionised - the defence industry worldwide. But while big business is analysing the data from the great war-testing laboratory that the former Soviet country has become, its population - still aspiring to be part of the European Union - is suffering the consequences of an escalation of violence by Russia that seems to have no end in sight. 

In addition to the psychosis caused by random Russian bombardments, which can occur at any time and against any Ukrainian city - something the sirens remind us of, sounding day and night -, there is the desperation of the electricity and water cuts that have already begun to occur.  

It is hard to imagine from Madrid, Paris or Rome what it is like to wake up in the morning and not have electricity to make a coffee, running water to take a shower or the ability to go to work. It is hard to imagine the despair you feel because, at home in the West, you flick a switch and everything works. But many Ukrainians are already considering, especially when children are involved, leaving their homes and their country.

We may be on the verge of another mass exodus of Ukrainian refugees, who will not be able to withstand the coming winter in their homes if the Kremlin continues to pound the country's critical infrastructure with impunity. In recent days, Putin has destroyed Kiev's largest power plant - in Trypilska - and has again bombed power plants in Kharkiv - which had already suffered major attacks in 2022, making them virtually impossible to repair.  

Una mujer ucraniana contempla los destrozos que ha provocado en la fachada de su edificio, en Kiev, un bombardeo ruso con misiles - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA
A Ukrainian woman looks at the damage caused to the façade of her building in Kiev by Russian missile shelling - PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA

Appeal to Europe

President Zelenski and his executive are well aware of the situation they will face in the coming months, which is why they are constantly appealing to their Western partners to send more Patriots. So far, Germany has been the first to respond, confirming this weekend the unilateral dispatch of an anti-aircraft battery to Kiev.  

"Due to the increase in Russian attacks against Ukraine, the Federal Government has decided to strengthen Ukrainian air defence," said German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius. "Russian terrorism against Ukrainian cities and the country's infrastructure is causing immeasurable suffering."   

A Patriot will probably not be enough to patch up the Ukrainian anti-aircraft dome and contain this new Russian offensive against the energy infrastructure, which is stretched to the limit at the moment. But it will give some breathing space to the civilian population, which will also receive anti-drone systems and generators from the Lithuanian government. 

The sound of missiles fired by Iran at Israel this weekend - in an increasingly tense and worrying part of the world - has highlighted the importance of anti-aircraft systems, showing that even worse escalations of violence can be prevented with good defence. 

Perhaps Western countries will take note this time, and apply the lessons to Ukraine, which desperately needs these Patriots to stop - at least in part - the Kremlin's indiscriminate and systematic attacks aimed at rendering Ukrainian cities uninhabitable and provoking a new mass exodus of refugees.