Even as the Russian ground advance on key targets including Kyiv and Odessa remains stalled, it has used long-range rockets in recent days to devastating effect against the Ukrainian military and infrastructure.
As the war grinds on, the strikes are a reminder of how Russia’s vastly superior armaments give it a distinct advantage, even as what was meant to be a lightning blitz to take out the Ukrainian government turns into a grueling war of attrition.
In the first week of the war, it is not clear how many Russian strikes hit their targets, but Piotr Lukasiewicz, an analyst at Polityka Insight, a Warsaw-based research institute, said that they did serious damage to Ukraine’s command and control centers.
“They disabled an important headquarters and communications center in the beginning with precision strikes,” he said.
Just as the Russians are plagued by logistical and resupply issues, the Ukrainians are struggling to replace the stationary systems that the Russians have destroyed or disabled.
“Gradually Ukrainians are losing their radars or warning systems,” Mr. Lukasiewicz said.
The Russians also have shown that their weapons can hit with precision. A strike on a barracks in Mykolaiv on Friday that was housing 200 marines, killing dozens, was among the deadliest of the war. It also came with little warning, according to the mayor, Oleksandr Senkevich, with no air alarms sounding. The strike raised questions about Ukrainian tactics and why they would have concentrated so many soldiers in one location on the front lines.
Mr. Lukasiewicz said that Ukraine, like Poland, still bases many of its troops and command and control in the same locations where they were based when it was a part of the Soviet Union. This has given the Russians another advantage.
“For them to obtain the exact locations of barracks, headquarters and military units would simply involve going through the archives,” he said.
The expansion of targets to the west, he said, was a pretty obvious strategy: fighting the troops in front of you while trying to cut their supply lines and communications systems.
In recent days, Russian cruise missiles fired from the Black Sea have struck a sprawling training base just 12 miles from the Polish border and, separately, a location near the Lviv airport used to repair MiG fighter jets — a staple of what is left of the Ukrainian air force. In both instances, the Russians did not fire a single missile but barrages.
The Ukrainians claimed to have shot down more than a dozen, but a number got through. The same is true regarding recent missile strikes on airports in other parts of western and central Ukraine.
At the same time, Russia claimed on Saturday that it had used a hypersonic missile to hit an underground warehouse for missiles and aviation ammunition in a western Ukrainian village. If confirmed, that would be the first battlefield use of the weapon that flies at superfast speeds and can easily evade American missile defense systems.
The Ukrainians said that the type of missile had yet to be determined and a video of the strike released by the Russian ministry of defense did not clearly demonstrate that it was indeed a hypersonic missile.
Also on Saturday, an adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Anton Gerashchenko, claimed that Russia, for the first time in Kyiv, was using “projectiles that descend on parachutes.” Those bombs, unlike laser targeted long-range missiles, are designed to inflict maximum damage.
Benjamin Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said that the recent strikes underscore how Russia’s targeting of civilians is part of their strategy.
“These strikes confirm that they do have precision capabilities, as we’d assumed,” he said in an email message. “Which also confirms that their use of indiscriminate strikes in cities is not because they don’t have precision munitions. It is deliberate, also as we’d assumed.”
In just over three weeks, Russia has launched more than 1,000 missiles and rockets at Ukrainian targets, according to the Pentagon. The vast majority, according to British officials, have been “dumb bombs” targeting civilians.
John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, warned recently that as Russian ground forces found their advances stymied by fierce Ukrainian resistance, they would rely more on long range cruise missiles and other rockets.
After the training base north of Lviv near the Polish border was hit, he said, Russia was doing more than just “sending a message.”
“They are clearly expanding some of their target sets here,” Mr. Kirby said.
While experts have been puzzled by Russia’s failure to gain complete control over the Ukrainian skies, they are certainly dominant — Russian surface-to-air missile capabilities can reach anywhere in Ukraine, according to military analysts. Russia is believed to fly some 200 sorties per day while Ukraine flies five to 10.
The vulnerability of Ukraine’s military infrastructure is why President Volodymyr Zelensky has for weeks been asking NATO to “close the skies” with a no-fly zone — a step the alliance will not take. Mr. Zelensky acknowledged recently that such a move was unlikely, but stepped up his calls for air defense systems to help blunt the impact of the Russian aerial bombardment.
Slovakia has agreed to provide its S-300 air defense systems — which can shoot down cruise missiles — and MiG-29s to Ukraine “immediately” if it can get replacements in a timely manner, Slovakia’s defense minister, Jaroslav Nad, told reporters in a joint news conference with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on March 17. Mr. Austin said there was no agreement to announce but that the discussions were an indication of the urgent work being done to help Ukraine defend itself.
Russia’s heavy use of missiles in the war also suggest some weaknesses that favor the Ukrainians.
These missiles, fired from hundreds of miles away, have no ability to hit mobile defense systems, according to a panel of military fellows at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan research group. That means “Russia has almost no ability to prevent mobile resupply,” the panel said.
Further, it is unclear how long Russia could sustain barrages of multiple cruise missiles aimed at a single target.
Dr. Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow for sea power and missile defense at the Royal United Services Institute, said Russia’s supply of cruise missiles may be limited. One report, he wrote recently, has suggested about 120 were produced in 2018.
“I’d expect the cruise missile arsenal to be large but not limitless,” he said in a statement. “They would have to be careful about what they hit.”