The attack 350 miles from the front that shows why Ukraine needs air defences now

If the US’s $60.1 billion of military aid had remained blocked in Washington, the CIA said there would have been a very real risk that Ukrainians could lose on the battlefield by the end of 2024

Oleksandr Ivchenko was one of the first rescue workers to arrive at the Hotel Profsoyuznaya last week after it was hit around breakfast time by a Russian ballistic missile strike.

The fireman spent the morning digging people out of the debris of the eight-floor Soviet-era building close to the centre of Chernihiv, a northern Ukrainian city 350 miles from the front line.

Hours later, he was resting by his fire engine near an emergency tent where people were giving details of missing family.

“All I remember is blood and glass everywhere,” he said. “The hotel was destroyed from the eighth floor to the third. The driver of a nearby car was blown apart by the shockwave. His body was a mess.”

Fighting back tears, he wanted to show that his resolve was undimmed. “We’ll fight to the end,” he added. “Until every Russian soldier in Ukraine is dead.”

But for all the courage of Ukraine’s civilians and soldiers, the attack on Chernihiv showed how the trajectory of the war is spiralling out of their control.

The Russian missile attack on Chernihiv on April 17

The Russian missile attack on Chernihiv on April 17

As President Zelensky has kept saying in recent days, a growing number of Russian missiles are getting through to their targets because Ukraine is running out of the sophisticated western-made Patriot and other air defence systems that it needs to stop them.

The solution lies largely in Washington, where the House of Representatives finally voted on Saturday night for a long-delayed bill unlocking just over $60.1 billion of military aid for Ukraine.

Bill Burns, the CIA director, said on Thursday that Ukraine could hold its own for the rest of the year if it received that assistance but that without it there was “a very real risk that the Ukrainians could lose on the battlefield by the end of 2024”.

The Pentagon has indicated that it will begin rushing weapons to Ukraine “within days”. They can’t get there too soon.

At least 17 people were killed and dozens injured when three missiles landed shortly after 9am on Wednesday in the centre of Chernihiv, which had a population of 280,000 people before the war.

Residents of Chernihiv after the missile strike, which killed at least 17 people and injured dozens

Residents of Chernihiv after the missile strike, which killed at least 17 people and injured dozens

“This would not have happened if Ukraine had received sufficient air defence equipment and if the world’s determination to counter Russian terror had been sufficient,” Zelensky wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

Why the hotel was targeted is not clear: several Russian military bloggers claimed a high-level military delegation was meeting there. This was denied by the Ukrainians, who see the attack as part of a broader strategy of disrupting ordinary life and undermining national morale.

“This year the attacks have intensified. Only this month more than a thousand shells have fallen on the Chernihiv region, mostly near the border with Russia and Belarus,” said Vyacheslav Chaus, the regional governor, during a visit to makeshift kitchens set up for those whose homes had been damaged.

“We have had huge international support, but war has a price and victory has a price. The price today is not money, but the lives of our people, and the sooner we get more air defence systems, the fewer people will die.”

The assault on the city came six days after a Russian missile attack destroyed the massive Trypilska thermal power plant south of Kyiv, which had the capacity to supply more than the capital’s entire pre-war energy needs.

Ukrainian air defences downed the first seven of the 11 missiles fired but were unable to stop the last four getting through, Zelensky told America’s Public Broadcasting Service. “Why? Because we had zero missiles … We ran out of all missiles.”

In comments echoed across Ukraine last week, the Ukrainian leader has contrasted his country’s plight with the way America, as well as Britain, France and Jordan, helped Israel to intercept the 300 missiles and drones Iran fired at its territory last weekend.

President Zelensky has contrasted Ukraine’s situation with the US, British and French support for Israel against Iran’s missile bombardment

President Zelensky has contrasted Ukraine’s situation with the US, British and French support for Israel against Iran’s missile bombardment

Earlier this year, Ukraine was intercepting about 60 per cent of Russian missiles; the rate has now dropped below 50 per cent, according to a study by the Institute of the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank .

“Russian forces have not intensified the size or the regularity of their missile and drone strikes in Ukraine, but they have become more effective,” said Riley Bailey, who co-authored the report.

During the early part of this year, Russians tended to attack civilian and military infrastructure and defence facilities. Starting a month ago, however, they have concentrated on critical energy infrastructure such as the Trypilska plant.

The Russians’ success is not just because of Ukraine’s shortage of defensive missiles. It is also because they have become become better at targeting, experimenting with different combinations of types of missiles since they tried and failed to destroy the enemy’s energy grid during the winter of 2022-23.

The nature of the airborne threat to Ukraine is essentially fourfold: ballistic missiles such as the ground-launched Iskander 9M723 and air-launched Kinzhal Kh-47M2; cruise missiles such as the Kh-101, drones, such as the Iranian-designed Shahed 136, and “glide bombs”, such as KAB-500s, which have been converted by the addition of wings.


Each poses a different challenge, which can be intensified if they are combined with one another, said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).

The speed and altitude of ballistic missiles, for example, makes them difficult for most air defence systems to engage. They also play havoc with radar by dispensing small penetration devices that create false tracks. Substantial warheads and considerable momentum amplify the damage.

Shahed drones, meanwhile, are cheap and so can be used in large numbers, while the Russians are increasingly using glide bombs — typically weighing 500kg and dropped from planes — which cause great damage.

“The Ukrainians have systems that can intercept all of those things,” Watling said. “But there are enough of them being fired that if Ukraine fires the wrong type of interceptor at any of those targets, it will exhaust its magazine. So, if it’s firing Patriots at Shaheds, then it will run out of Patriots and all the ballistic missiles will get through.”

The need to fend off Russian strikes on civilians and on infrastructure can also divert scarce air defences away from frontline forces fighting in the east. “The problem is if the Ukrainians don’t have some coverage of the front, then they might lose the war,” he said.

Top of Kyiv’s wish list have been the Patriot MIM-104, US-made surface-to-air missile systems, which are the only ones shown to have been consistently able to bring down Russian ballistic weapons. The Ukrainians are believed to have three batteries — including one used to protect Kyiv — but say they would need 25 systems, which cost more than $1 billion each, to cover the entire country.


Speaking by video link to a Nato defence ministerial council on Friday, Zelensky urged its members to give Ukraine a minimum of seven Patriot systems, revealing that Russia had fired nearly 1,200 missiles and 1,500 drones at Ukraine since the start of this year.

Germany last week announced the urgent transfer of a further Patriot anti-aircraft missile system to Ukraine, while its foreign and defence ministers, in a letter to dozens of countries, announced a global initiative on the search for additional air defence equipment for Ukraine.

Ukraine is also due in the next few weeks to receive a further German Iris-T SLM air defence system, to add to the three already supplied. The planned delivery was announced by Helmut Rauch, head of Diehl Defence, the company that makes them, who was among business leaders who accompanied Robert Habeck, the German vice-chancellor, on a trip to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Aid Bill passed by the House of Representative this weekend included $2.7 billion for Patriots and offensive Himars missiles — enough to buy a “significant amount” of Patriots, even at $4 million a missile, said John Hoehn, a military analyst at the Rand Corporation.

The people of Chernihiv, meanwhile, have been reflecting on the horrors of Wednesday’s attack. Inna Fesenko, director-general of the regional hospital, which is opposite the Profsoyuznaya hotel, described falling to the ground when the missiles struck.

“As soon as we could get on our feet we began to clear up,” she said. “No one was hurt because all the patients were either in shelters or in the corridors. Four pregnant women and a mother with her newborn have been transferred to a nearby hospital.”

New double-glazing units lay on the ground ready to be installed next to the empty gaps where windows had imploded in the blast. If not for the debris of broken glass, door frames and bits of concrete swept into a neat pile outside, it would be hard to imagine that just few hours previously disaster had struck.

After two years and two months of war, Ukrainians are tired and anxious, but the speed with which they return to normal life is perhaps a key to their remarkable resilience.

Cracks are beginning to show, however, as cities come under relentless nightly attacks. Drinking tea in a cosy Kyiv café, Irina, a nurse and beautician turned ambulance driver, conceded that even in the capital, where people had grown used to ignoring air raid warnings, the mood is darkening. “Now that we know the air defences are running out, we are returning to the bomb shelters,” she said.

Source: The Times