Ukraine War, 17 November 2022: Surovikin’s Billion-Dollar Strikes
Today I’ll try to continue catching up with developments of the last few days. I know (or at least: I’m aware), there are important developments on several of frontlines in this war, and I intend to cover them, don’t worry. However, and once again, I’ll focus on affairs related to air- and missile warfare. The reason is that they have a potential of effecting dramatic changes in the overall flow of this conflict. Arguably, this was not yet the case, but one can never know: long-term consequences cannot be excluded.
During the afternoon of 15 November 2022, Russia launched one of its biggest cruise missile strikes on Ukraine so far. It did so at the time the Director of the CIA, Bill Burns (who met the chief of the FSB, Sergey Naryshkin, in Ankara, Turkey, a day before), was meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, I’m almost completely certain that, once again, this operation was developed and run by General of the Army Sergey Surovikin. It seems that he is something like ‘Putin’s man for this war’: somebody Putin trusts more than either Shoygu or Gerasimov (or any other generals), and thus has a ‘direct approach to the president’. This appears to be confirmed by reports in the Russian social media, in which Surovikin is heavily supported by Kadyrov and Prigozhin — and the two are some of most important Putin’s allies left.
(As for ‘why is that so’: no clear idea yet. Could be it’s ‘just Surovikin’s imposing appearance’; could be he’s not complaining but doing what he can with available means…. of course, it could be simply because Surovikin’s hands are as ‘dirty’ as Putin’s, though….)
The strike began with several Tu-95MS bombers of the 121st and the 182nd Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiments, and Tu-160 bombers of the 184th Guards Poltavsko-Berlinskiy Red Banner Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment releasing Kh-101 and Kh-555 cruise missiles — apparently from their ‘usual stations’ above the Caspian Sea.
Official Kyiv mentioned the involvement of the 52nd Guards Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment, too. This unit is equipped with Tu-22M-3 bombers, though: if involved, these would have released their old Kh-22s (or Kh-32s, which is a slightly improved variant of the old weapon, but of which very few are available). However, so far I was not able to find any reports indicating intercepts/shoot-downs or hits by Kh-22/32s on that day.
Two or three warships of the Black Sea Fleet should have been involved as well: they were releasing 3M54 Kalibr cruise missiles.
The movement of the Russian heavy bombers and Russian warships in the Black Sea are both closely monitored by intelligence agencies of NATO, and thus there was ample warning. To make sure: NATO was tracking the movement of the Russian bombers already when tensions were not as high as they are since the Russian aggression on Ukraine, but is even more valid in these days.
They can deploy nuclear weapons. Correspondingly, NATO is particularly keen to keep an eye on them.
In this case, NATO’s caution resulted in Ukrainian air defence being put on alert well before the air raid sirens were sounded throughout the country, around 15.40hrs local time. Even then, the sheer size of the Russian attack did come as surprise, then over the following 15–20 minutes air raid alert was sounded in at least 11 out of 24 oblasts of Ukraine.
This is the reason why the number of known casualties was minimal: people had enough time to take cover.
As the missiles were converging on Ukraine, the VKS launched multiple MiG-31 and Su-35 interceptors — including at least four MiG-31s from Machulicshchy AB, in Belarus. As usual at least since the last Russian missile strike of this size — the one run on 10 October, when a total of 84 ballistic- and cruise missiles, and Iranian-made ‘kamikaze drones’ was deployed — their task was to intercept any of Ukrainian fighter-interceptors that would be scrambled in response. For this purposes, both types were armed with R-37M long-range air-to-air missiles: with a claimed maximum range of over 390km (when released from high altitude), these big, 600-kg-heavy weapons are meanwhile the primary threat for aircraft and helicopters of the Ukrainian Air Force.
The strike was aimed to overpower Ukrainian ground-based air defences by the sheer number of weapons deployed, but also to outmanoeuvre these with help of cruise missiles programmed to approach their targets through flying along unusual, or unexpected routes. For example: by flying down the border between Poland and Ukraine, and between Moldavia and Ukraine. Its objective was to knock out the entire Ukrainian power grid with, de-facto, a ‘single blow’.
IMHO, it developed much too slow for this purpose: it lasted over two hours, thus actually giving Ukrainians ‘too much’ time to detect, track and intercept the mass of incoming missiles with their own early warning radars and air defence systems. Indeed, even to re-load many of its launching vehicles, and thus enable them to engage yet additional incoming missiles.
This might indicate problems with the Constellation automatic tactical management system of the Russian Armed Forces: theoretically, it should be ‘easy’ to coordinate such multi-platform strike with help of such a system but, seemingly, this was not the case. Investigating this ‘detail’ is likely to take months, if not much longer…
Although far from perfect — indeed: full of ‘gaps’ in its coverage — and under severe pressure from the Russian tactical fighters armed with anti-radar missiles, the Ukrainian integrated air defence system did put up an impressive performance.
According to official Kyiv, out of a total of 77 cruise- and stand-off precision guided missiles (PGMs), 12 Russian- and Iranian-made UAVs and precision guided munitions, and 6 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) fired in ‘ballistic mode’ — i.e. a total of (at least) 89 weapons worth up to US$1 billion — up to 73 missiles and 10 UAVs and ‘kamikaze drones’ were shot down.
The list of Russian weapons reported by official Kyiv as released during this strike went as follows; I have ‘expanded’ it on basis of additional media reports:
- 75 Kh-101, Kh-555, and 3M54 Kalibr
- 2 Kh-59
- 10 Shahed-131 and Shahed-136
- 6 S-300s
- 1 Orion
- 1 Orlan-10
As far as I can say, the actual number of Shaheds, Orions and Orlan-10s involved was higher: it seems that in the case of such weaponry, Kyiv only reported those its air defences claimed as shot down. Moreover, as mentioned above, involvement of Tu-22M-3 bombers was reported by Kyiv, but not a single strike by their Kh-22 (or the modified version of that weapon, Kh-32) was mentioned in any of reports listing ‘details’ I was able to find.
The first incoming cruise missile was claimed shot down in the Sumy oblast around 15.45, then another over the Chernihiv oblast, few minutes later. By around 16.18hrs, first missiles have reached the Kyiv Oblast, and by 16.39hrs the Ternopil Oblast. Ukrainian air defences have primarily deployed their S-300 and Buk SAM-systems, but the Pentagon was proud to boast a deployment of the recently delivered NASAMS SAM-system, and that this had a ‘100% success rate’ in intercepting Russian missiles. Whether any of Italian-made Aspide SAMs was deployed, remains unknown: these are known to have reached Ukraine on 7 November (apparently, together with the first NASAMS).
Out of six Russian missiles that entered the airspace over the Kyiv oblast, Ukrainians claimed four as shot down. The other two damaged 10 apartment houses — killing at least one and wounding six persons — and hit one energy facility, knocking out the power supply in more than 50% of the city.
Either on 15 or on 16 November, this Kh-101 was shot down by a NASAMs in the Kyiv area, and then another two were felled by German-made IRIS-Ts, too.
(Mind: it is perfectly possible that some of the damage in question was actually caused by Ukrainian SAMs. As already the experiences from early during this war have shown — when at least one of Ukrainian Buks hit a skyscraper in Kyiv — deployment of heavy SAMs from within densely built-up areas is anything else but ‘simple’. Mind that such weapons cannot be programmed to ‘fly around’ higher buildings: they’re trying to home on their radar target, which is ‘somewhere kilometres behind’.)
Air defences of the Zhytomyr oblast were less successful and several missiles have hit the city: immediately after multiple explosions were heard, all the electricity and water supply were cut off. The Ternopil oblast was heavily hit, too, with 90% of it left without power.
The Lviv oblast was hit as next: the city was not only left in darkness but without heat supply, too. At least one, perhaps two Ukrainian 5V55 SAMs (from the S-300 SAM-system deployed in the Debri area) — fired in attempt to intercept a 3M54 Kalibr cruise missile approaching from the south — hit the village of Przewodow in Poland, killing two persons (here a good reconstruction of that affair).
(Notably, the crucial point here is that the 5V55s have a range of 70-90km [yes, there’s a version with a claimed range of 150km, but haven’t seen it in action in this war, yet] While such missiles are deployed as surface-to-surface weapons by the Russians for months already, the closest point in Belarus is about 115km away. Przewodow is thus outside the range of Russian S-300s deployed in Belarus. That means: sorry, but — and regardless where was that 5V55 manufactured — there is no way that a missile fired from inside Belarus has hit Przewodow.)
Elsewhere around Ukraine, two missiles are known to have hit an energy infrastructure facility in the Kovel district, and another two one in the Khmelnytsky hromada (Khmelnytsky Oblast). Both were out of power as a consequence — though it seems that this was cut off intentionally, already before strikes, to minimise possible damage. In the Kirovhrad Oblast, two missiles hit an energy facility in the Kropyvnytskyi district. Other missiles have targeted facilities in the Rivne, Volyn, Vinnytsia, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, and Kharkiv Oblasts. Perhaps the most ‘dramatic’ were Russian strikes on the Kharkiv Oblast, where a total of six SAMs fired by S-300 SAM-systems have targeted the Chuhuiv area and knocked out all the power in the city of Kharkiv and the rest of the oblast (indeed, these were without electricity well into the next day). Finally, at least two missiles hit something in the Kryvyi Rih, in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.
Overall, the Russians hit 15 facilities, causing enough damage to the power grid in western Ukraine — but, in the centre and north-east too — to leave more than seven million of people without power, heating and water. Indeed, the damage caused left even parts of the neighbouring Moldova without electricity. Repairs were initiated immediately, but representatives of Ukrenergo company announced ‘several difficult days’, as many shutdowns will be necessary to re-build the energy supply, but also supply of water.
As of this morning (17 November 2022), no air-to-air engagements between interceptors of the VKS and those of the Ukrainian Air Force from 15 November are known. Mind that this can easily change: details on air combats or intercepts of cruise missiles in this war are often released days- and weeks later.
16 and 17 November
On the morning of 16 November 2022, the Russians reportedly re-attacked a number of facilities in the Lviv oblast. This time, Ukrainians claimed downing of ‘most’ of missiles, but without specifying their number. Those missiles that did get through have hit energy infrastructure, though, disabling power supply for most of Lviv, Zolochiv, Bibrka, and Peremyshliany (the local population should be about 700,000 people in total, in peace: no idea how many refugees are around).
However, according to several people living in Lviv, there was no attack on this day at all: just an air raid alert caused by one of VKS’ MiG-31s scrambling from an air base in Belarus. Arguably, this was hard to make known, because in the aftermath of attacks from the previous day, electricity supply was re-stored only around 13.30hrs local time.
Finally, as of this morning, Russian air strikes were reported from the Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa oblasts. So far, Ukrainians reported one hit on an infrastructure facility in Odesa, but also the downing of two Shahed-136s.