KIEV, Ukraine – Shortly after a large wave of Russian missiles struck targets across the country in October, Ukrainian intelligence officials noticed something strange in the rubble.
It was the wreckage of a Kh-55 subsonic cruise missile developed in the 1970s to carry a nuclear warhead. The warhead was removed and ballast added to disguise the fact that it was carrying no payload, said General Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy chief of intelligence – a claim now supported by the Pentagon and British military intelligence.
But that wasn’t all the intelligence agents found. The missile was built in a Ukrainian arms factory.
The missile and the bomber that most likely shot it down were part of an arms cache that Ukraine handed over to Russia in the 1990s as part of an international agreement aimed at ensuring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the general said Skibitsky.
Over the next month, Ukrainian forces found the remains of two more Kh-55 missiles, both with warheads removed and both part of the same tranche of weapons that Ukraine had sent to Russia as part of the deal.
Russia used Ukraine’s own weapons as bait against them. They served a strategic goal: sending up the missiles would force Ukraine to mobilize its air defense system against them.
“First the Kh-55 missile is launched; we are responding,” General Skibitsky said in a lengthy interview at military intelligence headquarters in Kiev last week, ahead of the latest rocket attacks across the country. “It’s like a false target.”
After deploying Ukraine’s air defenses, he said, Russian bombers launch the more modern missiles with destructive warheads.
The three missiles are part of a larger number of retrofitted older missiles used in strikes, some as decoys, others modernized with warheads.
The use of ancient cruise missiles — including those built decades ago in Ukraine — is just one element in a complex and deadly conflict that involves deception alongside battlefield fighting.
As part of the 1990s accord known as the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal – then the world’s third largest, inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union – and transfer all nuclear warheads to Russia for decommissioning. in return for security insurance.
“All ballistic missiles and the Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers were also handed over,” General Skibitsky said. “Now they use Kh-55 missiles against us with these bombers. It would be better if we handed them over to the US.”
The general also offered a detailed assessment of current Russian capabilities and Ukraine’s ability to counter the threat.
His account is generally consistent with public statements by other Ukrainian military officials, the UK MoD, the Pentagon and military analysts.
“By our calculations, they have missiles for another three to five attack waves,” he said. “That’s when there are 80 to 90 missiles in a wave.”
Last Monday, Russia fired more than 70 rockets at Ukraine after Ukraine struck two military installations deep in Russia.
While it is widely believed that Russia’s inventories of its most advanced precision missiles are running low, General Skibitsky said Russian arms factories have been able to build 240 Kh-101 precision cruise missiles and about 120 of the sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles since the start of the war , which equates to about 40 new rockets per month. These numbers could not be independently confirmed.
Despite Western sanctions, Russia continued to produce new precision missiles as late as October, according to a report released last week by Conflict Armament Research, a UK-based independent group that identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition used in wars.
Yurii Ihnat, spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said that after the latest attack, investigators found many fragments indicating that the precision cruise missiles used in the attack had been manufactured in recent weeks.
“Russia uses newly manufactured missiles,” he told Ukrainian radio on Thursday.
As the Russians try to bolster their arsenal, Ukrainian officials say they are getting better at shooting down many types of missiles and drones fired in their direction.
During November, Brig. Gen. Gen. Oleksiy Hromov, a deputy chief of Ukraine’s General Staff, said that Ukraine’s air defenses shot down 72 percent of the 239 Russian cruise missiles and 80 percent of the 80 Iran-made Shahed-136 drones. They claim to have launched 60 of the 70 rockets on Monday, that is 85 percent.
But the missiles and drones that come through can still do a lot of damage depending on what they hit. On Saturday, Ukraine shot down 10 of 15 attack drones, but several hit critical infrastructure in Odessa, leaving 1.5 million people without power.
General Skibitsky leaned across the table and drew a map of Ukraine, outlining the four general directions from which Moscow is trying to penetrate Ukraine’s skies – launching missiles from the Black Sea in the south, from the area around the Caspian Sea to the Ukraine sends south-east, from Russia to the east and from Belarus to the north.
During large-scale attacks, in which up to 100 rockets were fired every minute, they fly in from all directions at the same time.
Since October, the general said, Russian bombers’ flight patterns were changing, taking detours to avoid air defenses. But they do not enter Ukrainian airspace, which limits their effectiveness.
Typically, Ukrainian intelligence has about an hour after Russian bombers take off from a base to track the flights before the pilots reach the “zone of fire” and launch missiles.