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As Russian forces continue to withdraw from areas surrounding Kyiv and focus on massive power in the Eastern region near Donbass, the Pentagon is making sure to remind people that Ukraine’s capital city is still very much “at risk”
Kyiv in Danger
“Russia still has the capability to strike Kyiv. I mean, even as we started to see their troops retreat from Kyiv, and Chernihiv from the north, I said many times, that we do not believe that Kyiv was no longer under threat, particularly from airstrikes,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters April 14, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Certainly Russia is in possession of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles capable of traveling several hundred miles from distances well outside of Kyiv, and of course 4th-Generation Russian aircraft could strike as well, However, it still remains unclear whether Russia has established any kind of air superiority, even in some kind of regional capacity. A big surprise of the war thus far has been the Ukrainian ability to contest the air with its own aircraft and seemingly effective air defenses.
While many specifics are of course not available for security reasons, Ukraine’s performance against Russian aircraft seems to suggest that the country is receiving effective air defenses, as Ukraine is reported to operate old Soviet-era air defenses. There has certainly been many efforts to get them Russian-built S-300s, and Kirby has said Russian Air Forces appear to be “risk averse,” meaning they are less willing to fly into firing range of Ukrainian air defense.
However, apart from the airspace above Ukraine, there is still a very serious threat from ballistic missiles. Not long ago, the Pentagon was clear that Russia was firing short-and-intermediate range ballistic missiles into Ukraine, weapons which can easily travel several hundred miles. This would appear to be quite a possible vulnerability for Kyiv, given that the Ukrainian forces do not appear to have large enough ballistic missile defenses or interceptors sufficient to knock incoming Russian missiles out of the air.
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They do have shoulder-fired weapons such as Stingers which are proven to be extremely effective against helicopters, drones and low flying threats, yet Stinger missiles are not likely to be able to stop or even impact an incoming ballistic missile. There has been some discussion of an interest in sending Patriot missile batteries into Ukraine, however the Pentagon has been clear that it would require US personnel on the ground in Ukraine to operate them, something the US has not been willing to risk.
There even continues to be concerns that Russia might use some of its precision-guided long range weapons to attack more government buildings in Kyiv, to include President Zelensky himself. These weapons do seem to present a very serious threat as it does not appear clear that Ukraine has any kind of defenses against these kinds of Russian weapons, apart from destroying the launch sites.
Russian convoys, armored vehicles and advancing infantry have proven to be extremely vulnerable to Ukrainian defenders, as they can be ambushed with anti-armor weapons in hit-and-run attacks. Incoming ballistic missiles, however, are difficult to intercept without advanced radar systems and interceptors of some kind, such as the US Patriot.
“We said that many times in the early stages of this retreat and this repositioning of Russian troops. The Russians still have long range air strike capability available to them. Whether it's through missiles or from air-launched cruise missiles, they -- I'm sorry, ballistic missiles or air-launched cruise missiles,” Kirby said.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.