Ukraine's big strike on Crimea shows how its older missiles can take out Russia's most advanced air defenses

Ukraine's big strike on Crimea shows how its older missiles can take out Russia's most advanced air defenses
  • Ukraine appeared to take out a Russian S-400 system in Crimea with Western ATACMS missiles.

  • The S-400 air-defense system is more advanced than the older ATACMS.

  • Experts told BI that S-400s are Russia's best, but their performance in Ukraine has been mixed.

Ukraine's latest claimed strike on Crimea is likely another example of how its older, Western-supplied missiles can foil even Russia's most advanced air-defense systems.

Ukraine's General Staff said Ukrainian forces targeted two Russian S-400 antiaircraft missile units and an S-300 antiaircraft missile unit on the Russia-annexed peninsula overnight on Sunday into Monday, damaging at least two of the units significantly.

It did not say what type of missiles were used, but Washington DC-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War said it was "likely with ATACMS" — US-made tactical ballistic missiles.

Rybar, an influential Russian military blogger, said on Monday that Ukraine had attacked Crimea with at least 12 ATACMS missiles.

The S-400 is Russia's most advanced air defense system. It first became operational in 2007, more than two decades after the ATACMS, which have been in service since 1986.

Ukraine said none of its missiles were downed in the attack, while mocking Russia's descriptions of its own air defenses.

"None of our missiles fired were intercepted by the enemy's 'highly effective' air defense," Ukraine's General Staff said.

The S-400 is Russia's best

Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at the US think tank Defense Priorities, described the S-400 to BI earlier this year as Russia's "top-of-the-line air defense system."

But he said its performance in Ukraine has been "mixed," with Ukraine able to take some out.

Ukraine's General Staff said on Wednesday that it destroyed another S-400 and another S-300 in Crimea, without detailing what it used in the attack.

A rocket launches from a S-400 missile system against a dark blue sky
A rocket launches from a S-400 missile system at the Ashuluk military base in Russia in September 2020.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

The S-400 was developed as a rival to the US' Patriot system, and the head of Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-owned military company that oversees much of Russia's military exports, has called it the "best long-range air defense system in the world."

Experts told BI that the system is clearly very capable and feared by Ukraine.

But they said it has proved vulnerable in Russia's ongoing invasion, and credited Ukraine with using skilled and creative tactics to go after the weapons.

Last November, the UK Ministry of Defence said that Ukraine had likely destroyed at least four Russian long-range air-defense systems in a week, with Russian reports saying three of them were S-400s.

A Russian Telegram channel that claims to have sources in Russia's police and military agencies said at the time that ATACMS were used.

Ian Williams, the former deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said last year that the S-400s "seem to have struggled against Storm Shadows," referring to missiles supplied to Ukraine by the UK and France, which were first used in 2003.

Fredrik Mertens, an analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies, told BI that "we clearly know that Ukrainian missiles are getting through and at rates that they really pose a problem for the Russians."

S-400 Triumph systems in Moscow's Red Square
S-400 Triumph systems rehearse before the World War II anniversary in Moscow in 2017.REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Meanwhile, George Barros, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told BI this week that the problem could actually become worse for Russia.

He said that new permissions given by some allies to allow Ukraine to use Western-donated weapons to strike military targets in Russia will put its S-400s and other air defenses — those once outside Ukraine's strike range — at risk.

Crimea at renewed risk

At the same time, Ukraine said last month that it used Western-supplied ATACMS to strike the Russian Kerch ferry crossing into Crimea.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, in a move that was condemned around the world. Most countries do not recognize the territory as part of Russia.

Ukraine has vowed to retake the region, which Russia uses to launch attacks on Ukraine.

Philip Karber, a military analyst with expertise on Ukraine, said in April that Ukraine is now in a position to use ATACMS to make Crimea "militarily worthless."

Correction — June 13, 2024: A previous version of the text misidentified what antiaircraft units Ukraine said were targeted overnight on Sunday. It was two Russian S-400s and one S-300, with at least two of the units reportedly damaged. In addition, the UK Ministry of Defence said in November that Ukraine had likely destroyed at least four Russian long-range air defense systems in a week, but it was Russian reports that identified three of them as being S-400s.

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