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Russia’s hypersonic story in Ukraine: “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

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Image courtesy of @mod_russia on Twitter.

What does the reported first battle use of a hypersonic missile mean for the dynamic of Putin’s war in Ukraine? Open-source intelligence sources suggest that the Russian Kinzhal is a propaganda weapon.

On early Saturday March 19, the Russian Ministry of Defence released a video claiming that Russian forces fired a Kinzhal (“dagger” in Russian) missile against a military ammunitions warehouse close to Ukraine’s borders with Romania and Hungary. If this strike really did occur, it would be the first known battle use of a hypersonic weapon. However, the expert community has already pointed to several inconsistences in this Russian story. Furthermore, the use of Kinzhal would not alter the military balance in Russia’s favour. The second alleged launch of Kinzhal, which was supposed to have hit a fuel depot in Kostiantynivka near Mykolaiv on Sunday, was simply announced by defense ministry spokesman at a press conference.

Why would Russia claim that it fired Kinzhal?

Two elements of the Russian video release are important. First is the use of the hypersonic weapon, and second is its target. Hypersonic weapon systems have gained a reputation as “wonder weapons” that can evade missile defenses and shorten the defender’s reaction time. This is thanks to their extreme speed (more than five times the speed of sound) and their ability to fly along an unpredictable trajectory within the Earth’s atmosphere. Combining this information with a target location in the western part of Ukraine, this Russian airstrike creates a psychological effect of intimidation. Russia has signaled to the West that it possesses and is willing to use weapons that can overcome missile defenses on NATO’s eastern flank, which is being reinforced with the deployment of Patriot defence systems to Poland and Slovakia. At the same time, Russia is showing that it will not hesitate to strike the shipments of military aid to Ukraine. A few days ago, Russia already hit a Ukrainian military training center in Yavoriv, close to the Polish border. Basically, through this missile launch, Russia is telling the West that “we can see what you are doing and we will make you stop helping Ukraine.”

We do not know what actually happened

The publicly available evidence on the use of Kinzhal is inconclusive at best. Ukraine has not been able to confirm whether the attacks on Saturday and Sunday actually took place. While US officials confirmed to CNN that Russia launched a hypersonic missile against Ukraine, soon thereafter the open-source intelligence (OSINT) wonks were able to geolocate the video footage of Saturday’s alleged hypersonic missile attack and tell a different story.

Russia claimed that its Kinzhal hypersonic missile hit a military target near the village of Delyatyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region in the western part of Ukraine. However, based on the satellite imagery from Planet Labs, it looks like the video footage released by the Russian Ministry of Defense shows a missile strike hitting a farm-like object in a rural area in the far eastern area of Ukraine, which occurred a week before Russia broke the news of its first use of Kinzhal in combat.

Based on reporting in early February, Kinzhal was deployed together with four Kinzhal-capable MiGs in Kaliningrad, the strategically important Russian exclave bordering NATO members Poland and Lithuania. While it is unclear whether Kinzhal was indeed fired, it is highly improbable that Russia would use it to hit a strategically irrelevant object in Eastern Ukraine.

If Russia did fire Kinzhal, would it even matter?

Kinzhal is one of the six “wonder weapons” that Putin presented in his address to the nation in 2018. Russia claims that Kinzhal, an air-launched ballistic missile, can reach Mach 10 and fly as far as 2,500 kilometers, yet the exact performance has not been verified yet by independent sources. We know that Kinzhal is a modified version of the surface-launched Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile and that it can be launched from a supersonic MiG-31 interceptor jet, specifically modified for this task. This gives the missile a boost to reach higher speeds at an altitude that is unusual for a ballistic missile and extend its range. However, this does not say anything about superior maneuverability and accuracy of Kinzhal missiles. Furthermore, it is likely that this might have been only an isolated launch. Russia does not seem to possess a large number of these expensive missiles, and only a dozen MiG-31s have been modified to carry them.

Importantly, going beyond the language of hypersonic wonder weapons, any ballistic missile traveling a few hundred kilometers usually flies at hypersonic speeds (more than Mach 5). Therefore, one should exercise caution when labeling a weapon system as hypersonic to imply any novel capabilities. Overall, current hypersonic missiles do not seem to offer any significant advantage for the military in comparison with existing missiles, other than a menacing psychological effect.

The game-changing effect in the context of Putin’s war in Ukraine would occur under two scenarios. First, Kinzhal is a dual capable weapon, which means that it is compatible with both nuclear and conventional warheads. If this missile carried a nuclear warhead, it would significantly change the dynamic of the war, escalating it into an unknown, much more dangerous territory. Second, aiming at targets so close to Ukraine’s border with NATO countries is very reckless. Given that these missiles might still be technically unreliable, any loss of control over their trajectory or malfunction that would result in the missile unintentionally hitting a target on the territory of a NATO country would represent a major escalation and a spill-over of this war deeper in Europe. An incident has already been reported of a “lost” Russian-made drone that crushed in Croatia.

Conclusion: Kinzhal is a propaganda weapon

Russia’s kizhaling in Ukraine has a propagandist objective. No open-source evidence suggests that this weapon is more capable than other precision-guided ballistic or cruise missiles that Russia has already fired at Ukraine. Also, we cannot rule out that Kinzhal was merely “press-released.” The effect of Kinzhal news is mostly psychological, because hypersonic missiles have a reputation of being unstoppable weapons. This is the Kremlin’s attempt to intimidate and make the West reconsider its military aid to Ukrainian forces.

Paradoxically, Russia’s use of Kinzhal, if it occured at all, can also signal a gradual exhaustion of military power and capability and failures in the Russian offensive. After more than three weeks of war, Russia is running low on its stockpiles of Iskander tactical ballistic missiles and Kalibr cruise missiles. Yet Kinzhal is a regular ballistic missile attached to an aircraft, not a game-changing capability that would alter the military balance on the battlefield. Ultimately, whether at hypersonic or subsonic speeds, it does not qualitatively change the fact that Russia is bombing Ukraine.

About the Author

Dominika Kunertova is a Senior Researcher in the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies.

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