ISW: Russian forces conducted the largest missile strike served Russian state propaganda objectives

Russian forces conducted the largest missile strike across Ukraine of 2023 so far on March 9, but the attack likely only served Russian state propaganda objectives. 

Ukrainian military officials reported that Russian forces targeted Ukrainian critical infrastructure with 84 different missiles including 28 Kh-101/Kh-555 and 20 Kalibr cruise missiles, six Kh-22 anti-ship missiles, six Kh-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, two Kh-31P supersonic anti-ship missiles, six Kh-59 guided missiles, and at least 13 S-300 air-defense missiles.

Russian forces also attacked Ukraine with eight Iranian-made Shahed–136 drones, which Ukrainian officials noted likely sought to distract Ukrainian air defense systems before the missile strikes.

Ukrainian forces reportedly shot down 34 of the 48 Kalibr and Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles and four Shahed-136 drones.

Ukrainian officials also noted that all eight of the Kh-31P and Kh-59 missiles did not reach their intended targets. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat noted that Ukrainian forces did not have the capacity to shoot down some of the Russian missiles—likely referring to Kinzhal and S-300 missiles.

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces conducted “high precision long range air, sea, and land-based missile strikes” targeting Ukrainian military infrastructure, military-industrial complexes, and energy infrastructure supporting the Ukrainian military as retaliation for the alleged incursion into Bryansk region on March 2.

Ukrainian officials, Russian milbloggers, and social media footage indicate that Russian forces overwhelmingly targeted energy infrastructure across Ukraine. The head of the Ukrainian state electricity transmission operator Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrynskyi, stated that Russian missile strikes once again targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure, but yet again failed to achieve Russia’s ongoing goal of destroying Ukrainian power supplies.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stated that Russian strikes hit eight energy sites resulting in power outages in some areas of the country.

The Kyiv City Military Administration reported that preliminary data showed that Russian forces may have used Kinzhal missiles to strike unspecified infrastructure, while social media footage showed smoke rising from one of Kyiv’s thermo-electric power plants. Russian milbloggers amplified footage and reports of the aftermath of strikes on energy facilities in the cities of Kyiv, Dnipro, Vinnytsia, Odesa, Kirovohrad, and Kharkiv among others.

ISW continues to assess that these missile strikes will not undermine Ukraine’s will or improve Russia’s positions on the frontlines.

The Kremlin likely deliberately launched missiles that Ukrainian air defenses cannot intercept to achieve results within the Russian information space despite the dwindling supplies of such missiles. Ihnat noted that Russia has up to 50 Kinzhal missiles and had used some missiles that it cannot replace. Russian President Vladimir Putin likely used these scarce missiles in fruitless attacks to appease the Russian pro-war and ultranationalist communities, which have overwhelmingly called on him to retaliate for the Bryansk region incident on March 2.

Russian milbloggers and propagandists have also criticized the Russian missile campaign for failing to make Ukraine “freeze” over the winter in late February and early March before the spring season.

Putin likely attempted to offset these narratives with another missile attack similar to the ones that Russia conducted in the fall of 2022, using advanced missiles to guarantee some damage in Ukraine. Russian milbloggers did not overwhelmingly support today‘s strikes, however, noting that the Kremlin needs to fundamentally change its targeting approach given that Ukraine has adapted to the established attack pattern against its energy infrastructure.

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