WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 (Reuters) – Russia’s increase in missile strikes against Ukraine is in part designed to deplete Kiev’s air defense supplies and eventually achieve dominance of the airspace over the country, a senior Pentagon official said on Saturday .
Russia has been bombarding cities across Ukraine with rocket attacks for the past week, in one of the heaviest waves of rocket attacks since Moscow began its invasion nearly nine months ago.
Ukraine says the strikes have paralyzed nearly half of Ukraine’s energy system, creating a potential humanitarian disaster as winter approaches.
Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy adviser, warned that Moscow also hoped to exhaust Ukraine’s air defenses that have so far prevented the Russian military from dominating the skies over Ukraine.
“They are really trying to overwhelm and exhaust the Ukrainian air defense systems,” Kahl told reporters during a trip to the Middle East.
“We know what the Russian victory theory is, and we are determined to make sure this doesn’t work by making sure the Ukrainians get what they need to keep their air defenses viable.”
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Western military experts widely expected that the Russian military would attempt to immediately destroy Ukraine’s air forces and air defenses. This is a core element of modern military strategy, allowing for better support of advancing ground forces.
Instead, Ukrainian forces with surface-to-air missiles and other air defenses were able to threaten Russian aircraft, and the skies over Ukraine remain disputed to this day.
That critical, early failure has been a core element of Russia’s troubles in Ukraine as it presses its botched invasion, at a huge cost in lives and military equipment.
“I think one of the things that probably surprised the Russians the most is how resilient Ukraine’s air defenses have been since the start of this conflict,” Kahl said.
“That’s in large part due to the ingenuity and cleverness of the Ukrainians themselves in keeping their air defense systems viable. But it’s also because the United States and other allies and partners have provided tremendous support,” he said.
Last week, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin focused on air defense supplies for Ukraine during a virtual meeting he hosted from the Pentagon. Ukraine’s allies have provided everything from antiquated Soviet-era systems to more modern, Western systems.
For the United States, this includes newly US-supplied NASAMS air defense systems that the Pentagon says have so far had a 100% success rate in Ukraine in intercepting Russian missiles.
“We transitioned the Ukrainians across the board to NATO standard equipment, but not least air defense systems like NASAM,” Kahl said.
The United States has supplied Ukraine with more than 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft, counter-artillery and air surveillance radars.
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali Editing by Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry
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