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Air Or Ground War? Why Russian Missile Attacks Make A New Assault On Kyiv More Likely

While Russia again launched a major missile and drone attack Friday, there are growing signs that Vladimir Putin is planning a major ground operation against the capital Kyiv in early 2023. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the path to Moscow victory would be through massive Russian troop casualties.

Photo of a destroyed building after a missile attack in Ukraine

Russian strikes in the city of Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine on December 16

Cameron Manley

Russia’s latest large-scale missile barrage on Ukraine on Friday, its seventh major attack since it began targeting energy infrastructure in October, marks another. Yet it also comes amid reports that Moscow may be planning a ground offensive on Kyiv in January or February.

The contrast poses a fundamental question for this war, like so many since the dawn of modern air forces: Can Vladimir Putin achieve any semblance of victory from the air, without sacrificing the massive casualties among Russian ground troops that would almost certainly be necessary for conquering territory.


Friday’s launching of more than 60 missiles and multiple drones at targets across Ukraine left at least two dead, and forced Kyiv authorities to once again impose emergency blackouts across the country, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the President’s Office said.

Kharkiv has been left without power while explosions in Kyiv caused major disruptions to the water supply. Russian forces also hit a residential building in the Dnipropetrovsk region, leaving large numbers of civilians trapped under the rubble.

Air strikes go only so far

Still, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov made a point of praising Ukrainians in a briefing saying that they were again able to “successfully defend themselves against Russian missile attacks” on critical infrastructure facilities. This is by no means the first instance where Ukraine has demonstrated its capacity and fortitude to negotiate pummelling from the sky.

But if Russia is hoping to progress its ‘special military operation’ and capture more Ukrainian territory, it must begin a major ground assault. Air strikes will only go so far. They instill fear and make daily life ever more difficult, but provide little substantive gains for the Russian side in the battle and claims for territory in Ukraine.

These latest Russian strikes followed stark warnings from Ukrainian officials that Moscow was planning a new all-out offensive early next year. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned this week that Russia’s new “large offensive" may well be looming as soon as January. “They definitely still keep hopes that they will be able to break through our lines and advance deeper in Ukraine,” he said.

Tapping into 200,000 fresh troops

Speaking with Ukrainian Business News, Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said the Russians are training some 200,000 new soldiers called up in September as part of its partial mobilization. "I have no doubt that there will be another attempt to attack Kyiv," Zaluzhny.

However, Mykhailo Samus, Deputy Director for Foreign Affairs at Ukraine’s Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, told Ukrainian news site TSN that he did not believe Russia was ready to carry out an offensive in January 2023. “In any case,” he said, “there is not much time left until January, and it is not clear now that Russia has prepared a strike group or whether there are any efforts to prepare such a group.”

Samus suggests that the Russians may go on the offensive at the end of February, carrying out a rerun of the original invasion on February 24, 2022. "By then, the ground will have frozen, and the February frosts will allow the occupiers to hope that they will be able to conduct an operation in Volyn or again, in Kyiv.”

If, in the new year, Russia does launch a new offensive, whenever and wherever it may be, it cannot easily forget that almost a year after the initial invasion, very little ground has been made and at no small cost. Ukraine estimates that more than 80,000 Russian troops have been killed.

But it's also worth remembering that the would-be strategy of air attacks on infrastructure began on Oct. 10, just as Russia was losing control of the key southern city of Kherson. Would-be strategies are often the result of shrinking alternatives, which in war too often simply extend the bloodshed, in both time and space.

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Ian T. Adams and Seth W. Stoughton

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