Military Affairs Strategic Thinking

Russian anti-population campaign in Ukraine. Why has Russia taken this step, what is it pursuing and what are its possible consequences?

Matej Rafael Riško

The current situation in Ukraine is beginning to deteriorate following the launch of Russia’s counter-population campaign. Ukrainian President Zelensky announced on October 20, 2022, that due to three non-functioning power plants there will be blackouts during the day and citizens were also urged to save electricity as much as possible. Some areas of Ukraine, especially Sumy, are currently virtually without electricity and water supplies. Moscow’s decision to launch massive attacks against the civilian population and Ukrainian infrastructure represents a major turning point in the conduct of the war so far. Why has Russia taken this step, what is it pursuing and what are its possible consequences?

Russian motivation

Russian military thinking places relatively high importance on so-called “Strategic Military Operations to Destroy Critically Important Targets” (SODCIT) and sees them as an integral part of the war effort. Russian military documents and literature largely define a strategic target as “a target (or facility), the destruction or suspension of the functionality of which would lead to loss of control of the economy”. This approach is already based on earlier works by Giuliou Douhet and John A. Warden III, as well as Russia’s own reflection on the 1991 Desert Storm Operation against Iraq, which shaped Russian theoretical military thinking quite fundamentally.

Strategic bombing is largely “independent” on the operational-tactical level and acts on the resources of the “national power of the enemy” in order to achieve the desired independent effect. At present, we can say that the bottleneck of the economy is largely considered to be the energy sector, and in particular the electric power generation and transmission system. Its damage has the potential to severely cripple the economic productivity and performance of the entire country. In a similar strategic campaign during Operation Desert Storm, the United States struck 723 trategic targets, 28 of which involved the Iraqi electricity grid. Similar strategic bombing campaigns were also conducted during the wars in Yugoslavia and Kosovo.

By default, this type of operation is associated primarily with the (IPW) initiation phase of the war. However, Russia was originally going to use Ukrainian infrastructure for its own purposes, as it initially expected only very mild Ukrainian resistance. Moscow was evidently still calculating with the assumption of using Ukraine’s infrastructure during this summer, a situation that changed due to significant Ukrainian military successes and specifically the offensive near Kharkiv. These were probably the factors that convinced the Russian political leadership to launch a counter-population/counter-infrastructure campaign. It is also worth noting, this is a fairly common practice in Russian military engagement, and similar campaigns are well-known from Chechnya and Syria.

Goals of the Russian campaign and its expected outcomes

Russia is following two main objectives. The first is to cripple Ukraine’s infrastructure and economy enough to fundamentally affect the war effort. The second is to terrorise the population, which will lead to a decline in support for political leadership and a reduction in the war effort. At the same time, however, we know from history that this aspect is usually very difficult to achieve, even with massive strategic bombing. It is worth mentioning, for example, the bombing of the UK by Germany during Operation Steinbock (Baby Blitz), or the Allied bombing of Germany (typically Operation Gomorrah, or the bombing of Dresden). It can be assumed that the intention to intimidate the Ukrainian civilian population will be realised in a negligible way, if at all. The civilians are likely to be able to tend to the imposed state of affairs and accept them. Attacks on infrastructure, however, may fundamentally affect Ukraine’s economic situation and influence the resources necessary for the war effort.

Russia’s counter-population campaign constitutes the character of a horizontal and vertical escalation. Horizontal means it is a massive deployment of a large number of weapons for these strikes, including missile strikes and loitering munitions strikes, on a scale that has not been seen before. Vertical escalation means the campaign has been used against a new set of targets virtually across the entire territory of Ukraine. The vertical escalation in this case has two parts, the first one is geographical and the second one is the set of targets they engaged, which are also represented by the centres of major cities such as Kyiv or Kharkiv.

In terms of the operational-tactical level of the campaign, the authors anticipate that attacks against infrastructure are likely to lead to the dilemma of whether Ukrainian air defence systems (AD) should be deployed primarily on the battlefield or for the protection of infrastructure and population. The goal is to achieve a higher dispersion of air defence systems and reduced the saturation of AD on the battlefield, which can potentially allow at least a partial opening of the skies to the Russian Air Force. At the same time, Ukraine is beginning to run out of AD systems, which again may serve to reduce the saturation of air defence on the battlefield.

Russian means

The systems used for this purpose are sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles (SLCM/ALCM) such as the 3M-54 Kaliber, Kh-101 and Kh-555, short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) such as the 9K720 Iskander, and missiles originally designed for air defence systems with an additional ground attack mode. In the field of loitering munition (suicide drones), these are primarily represented by Iranian HESA Shahed 136. According to some conservative estimates, Russia has so far depleted about 40% of its cruise missiles and still has about 700 of these, but only about 120 9K720 Iskander missiles could be available. Russia is also very likely holding an unspecified number of these missile systems as a reserve for a possible conflict with NATO. The reduction in the number of ballistic missiles has led to the need to negotiate a contract with Iran for the purchase of a large number of Zolfaghar and Fateh-110 missiles with ranges of 700 and 300km.

The use of missiles originally intended for air defence complexes (mainly S-300) such as the 48N6 family missiles type 48N6/48N6E with a range of 150km and 48N6D/48N6E2 with a range of 200km is mainly connected with the modernisation of Russian air defence systems and the replacement of the S-300FM, S-300PM1 and S-300PM2 complexes by the S-400 system (S-300PM3). An (unspecified) amount of munitions has been left available in stocks, which is possible with a little upgrade to be used for ground attacks. The Russian S-300 and Buk-3M air defence systems have an additional ground attack capability, but with poor accuracy. According to Ukrainian Intelligence Services reports, these missiles have been upgraded by satellite navigation units that allow flight path corrections; in the terminal phase, the missile is likely using semi-active homing. This is a relatively inexpensive variant, which makes it possible to utilise such munitions for purposes for which they were not primarily intended, even though the fragmentation warhead has a relatively small mass (144kg).

In conclusion, it is clear that Russia, although it has problems with dwindling ammunition stocks, has sufficient capability to continue this campaign and is likely to continue it. This must be taken into account in the next discussion about military and economic aid to Ukraine.

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