Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (2024)

By Josh Holder and Constant Méheut

This is what a year of Russian missile strikes on Ukraine looks like. Ukrainian air defenses used to intercept most missiles, but in recent months, more and more have made it through.

April 2023

Intercepted
Russian missile

Not
intercepted

May

June

July

Aug.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan. 2024

Feb.

March

April

The data, from a New York Times analysis of daily Ukrainian military reports, shows a major shift: Ukraine is increasingly failing to stop Russian missiles, crippling its ability to protect major infrastructure and plunging cities into darkness.

Russian air assaults have struck critical Ukrainian weapons factories and railways used to supply the front. They have also targeted Ukrainian troops on the front line.

Ukraine has been making desperate pleas for more air defenses from its Western allies, saying it is running out of critical supplies. But that is only part of the problem. Russia has also changed its tactics, firing larger barrages that overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses and faster missiles that are harder to shoot down.

Some attacks appear intended to make life difficult for civilians by striking urban centers, or damaging power plants and cutting off electricity to tens of thousands of residents, as was the case last week.

New Western aid will help. After prolonged political wrangling, the United States last month approved a $60 billion aid package, and more air-defense missiles have already been sent as part of the package.

But it could be months before enough weapons arrive to significantly bolster Ukrainian air defenses. And some problems, like Russia’s use of more advanced missiles, are likely to remain even after the aid is delivered.

The Times analyzed hundreds of statements released by the Ukrainian Air Force over the past year that detailed the number and types of missiles fired by Russia and intercepted by Ukraine over that period. While the data cannot be independently verified, experts who study the war say it is broadly reliable.

Share of Russian missiles

Number of Russian missiles

Intercepted

Not intercepted

Ukraine says it has recently faced hundreds of Russian missiles a month, and an increasing number have slipped through its air defenses.

While Kyiv reported intercepting more than 80 percent of the missiles last May, that rate has dropped to less than half.

Much of Ukraine’s success last May, during another period of intense Russian missile barrages, was attributable to newly augmented defenses: It had just received its first Patriot system.

Considered one of the United States’ best air-defense weapons, the Patriot includes a powerful radar system and mobile launchers that fire missiles at incoming projectiles. Last May, Ukraine said it used the system to shoot down a Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missile, one of the most sophisticated conventional weapons in the Kremlin arsenal.

The arrival of the Patriot system and other Western weapons raised hopes that Ukrainian cities would now be better protected. Its allies have so far provided Ukraine with at least three Patriot systems and at least 15 other air-defense systems.

But this winter, when Russia once again ramped up its missile attacks, Ukraine was at a loss to stop them.

Russia had improved its tactics, firing larger and more complex barrages, including cruise, ballistic and hypersonic missiles. To confuse and overwhelm Ukrainian defenses, Russia often starts by launching attack drones, followed by waves of missiles fired from different locations.

In particular, Russia has increased its use of weapons that Ukraine has long struggled to intercept, such as the Iskander-M ballistic missile and the Kh-22 missile.

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (1)

Iskander-M

Kh-22

S-300/S-400

A short-range ballistic missile, it evades air defenses by releasing decoys that produceradio signals to spoof enemy radars and contains a heat source to attract missiles.

Originally an anti-ship weapon, it has been repurposed for land attacks. It travels atseveral times the speed of sound, complicating the task of air defenses.

Russia has increasingly used these antiaircraft missiles for land attacks. It often firesthem at close targets, leaving little to no time to shoot them down.

Intercepted

Not intercepted

60

40

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (2)

S-300/S-400

Russia has increasingly used these antiaircraft missiles for land attacks. It often firesthem at close targets, leaving little to no time to shoot them down.

Intercepted

Not intercepted

60

40

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Kh-22

Originally an anti-ship weapon, it has been repurposed for land attacks. It travels atseveral times the speed of sound, complicating the task of air defenses.

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Iskander-M

A short-range ballistic missile, it evades air defenses by releasing decoys that produceradio signals to spoof enemy radars and contains a heat source to attract missiles.

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (3)

S-300/S-400

Russia has increasingly used these antiaircraft missiles for land attacks. It often firesthem at close targets, leaving little to no time to shoot them down.

Intercepted

Not intercepted

60

40

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Kh-22

Originally an anti-ship weapon, it has been repurposed for land attacks. It travels atseveral times the speed of sound, complicating the task of air defenses.

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Iskander-M

A short-range ballistic missile, it evades air defenses by releasing decoys that produceradio signals to spoof enemy radars and contains a heat source to attract missiles.

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (4)

S-300/S-400

Russia has increasingly used these antiaircraft missiles for land attacks. It often firesthem at close targets, leaving little to no time to shoot them down.

Intercepted

Not intercepted

60

40

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Kh-22

Originally an anti-ship weapon, it has been repurposed for land attacks. It travels atseveral times the speed of sound, complicating the task of air defenses.

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Iskander-M

A short-range ballistic missile, it evades air defenses by releasing decoys that produceradio signals to spoof enemy radars and contains a heat source to attract missiles.

20

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

But Ukrainian commanders say there is a more basic reason for Kyiv’s plummeting interception rates: growing shortages of ammunition.

Last month, Russia destroyed the biggest power plant in the Kyiv region, an area that is one of the best protected in Ukraine, thanks to the presence of Patriot batteries.

“Why? Because we had zero missiles,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in an interview with PBS NewsHour. “We ran out of all missiles.”

Russia, by contrast, fired 11 missiles at the power plant, he said. Ukrainian air defenses downed the first seven — but had no choice but to let the next four pass, he said.

That is the sort of decision a Ukraine short on munitions has to make increasingly these days, even if it may mean destruction and death for its citizens, military experts say.

“It’s the new rules of engagement,” said Tom Karako, the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Sometimes, you have to let things go. And it may be that you have to protect your military forces over your population, for instance.”

Maj. Ilya Yevlash, a Ukrainian Air force spokesman, said that Russia had so many S-300 missiles that it was worthless to try to intercept them all.

“We cannot afford to deplete our invaluable stockpile of air defense missiles,” he said. “If we try to shoot them down, we won’t have enough Patriots.”

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (5)

Shahed 131/136

These low-cost drones are designed to fly into a target and detonate on impact. Russia oftenlaunches them in swarms to overwhelm air defense systems.

Intercepted

Not intercepted

400

200

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (6)

Shahed 131/136

These low-cost drones are designed to fly into a target and detonate on impact. Russia oftenlaunches them in swarms to overwhelm air defense systems.

Intercepted

Not intercepted

400

200

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (7)

Shahed 131/136

These low-cost drones are designed to fly into a target and detonate on impact. Russia oftenlaunches them in swarms to overwhelm air defense systems.

Intercepted

Not intercepted

400

200

April

2023

July

Oct.

Jan.

2024

April

Ukraine has been much more successful at intercepting attack drones. Data from the Ukrainian Air Force shows it has downed about 80 percent of them over the past year, almost all Shahed drones. That is because they are slower than missiles and can be shot down with less sophisticated weapons, like antiaircraft guns.

But Ukraine’s rate of intercepting drones has declined as Russia has adapted its drone fleet, changing flight patterns, bolstering speeds and painting them black to evade detection.

Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst with Rochan Consulting in Poland, said large and slow Russian reconnaissance drones had recently been able to operate behind Ukrainian lines around the cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia.

“If you can’t shoot them down, then obviously this raises a significant question about the Ukrainian ability to provide an air-defense umbrella,” he said.

Ukraine’s need to triage its air-defense systems leaves some cities far more exposed than others. And Russia has made the most of this situation in recent months, hitting cities and regions that do not enjoy the protection of Patriots like Kyiv.

Since December, Russian forces have targeted, in particular, a large belt of land stretching from Kharkiv in the northeast to Odesa in the south. Ukraine’s western regions, which have been spared heavier bombardment for much of the war, have also been increasingly hit.

Minimum number of days each region was targeted by Russian strikes

None

1–2

3–4

5–6

7–8

9+

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (8)

Kyiv was targeted

more than any

other region

last May.

April 2023

May

June

July

August

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Dnipro

Odesa

September

October

November

December

January 2024

The south was

hardest hit in

December.

March

April

February

Dnipropetrovsk was

targeted on at least

15 days in February.

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (9)

April 2023

May

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Dnipro

Odesa

Kyiv was targeted

more than any other

region last May.

June

July

September

August

November

October

The south was

hardest hit in

December.

December

January 2024

March

February

Dnipropetrovsk was

targeted on at least

16 days in February.

April

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (10)

April 2023

May

June

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Dnipro

Odesa

Kyiv was targeted

more than any other

region last May.

July

August

September

October

November

December

The south was

hardest hit in

December.

January 2024

February

March

Dnipropetrovsk was

targeted on at least

15 days in February.

April

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (11)

April 2023

May

Kyiv

Kharkiv

Dnipro

Kyiv was

targeted more

than any other

region last

May.

Odesa

June

July

September

August

November

October

December

January 2024

The south was

hardest hit in

December.

March

February

Dnipropetrovsk was

targeted on at least

16 days in February.

April

Note: Russian missile and drone strikes reported by the Ukrainian Air Force are shown. This does not include artillery shelling on the front line.

With air defenses limited, Major Yevlash said, the Ukrainian Air Force uses them in “non-standard ways.” It moves them around the country to adapt to Moscow’s changing tactics and to reduce the chances of the weapons being spotted and destroyed by Russian forces.

But that will not be enough to plug the holes in a country the size of Texas, said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow for air power and technology at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Ukrainian commanders must constantly make extremely hard choices between defending critical national infrastructure, key military facilities, cities and troops on and close to the front lines,” Mr. Bronk said.

For one Ukrainian unit of drone hunters in the battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, the lack of defense systems has often left them watching helplessly as Russian missiles race overhead in the city’s direction.

“There are missiles that our forces can’t intercept with what we have, and they fly as they please,” said Barber, 23, a unit member, using only his first name under military rules. “We need Patriots for that.”

Methodology

To construct a dataset of Russian missile and drone strikes, The Times collected every statement posted by the Ukrainian Air Force on its Facebook page from April 1, 2023 to April 30, 2024. We used GPT-4, an A.I. model, to tally and classify Russian missiles or drones reported by Ukraine, including their type, the date they were fired and whether they were intercepted. All of the data was manually checked to ensure that it matched the original posts.

In a small number of statements, Ukraine only described how many missiles it shot down and omitted how many Russia had fired. In these cases, there may have been additional missiles fired that were not recorded, and the intercept rates shown could be slightly lower.

The statements by the Ukrainian Air Force often group similar missile types together, for example “Kh-101/Kh-555/Kh-55 missiles” and “S-300/S-400 missiles.” The analysis grouped missiles into types Ukraine regularly describes together. In a small number of statements, Ukraine grouped together different missiles, for example “7 Iskander-M/S-300/S-400 missiles.” These missiles are included in the total number of missiles fired and intercepted, but not in the counts for individual missile types.

The number of days each region of Ukraine has been targeted by Russian missile and drone strikes should be thought of as the minimum, as some Ukrainian statements did not mention which region was targeted.

Facing an Endless Barrage, Ukraine’s Air Defenses Are Withering (2024)

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