Russia is using old Ukrainian missiles against Ukraine, general says

KYIV, Ukraine — Shortly after a large wave of Russian missiles slammed into targets across the country in October, Ukraine’s intelligence officials noticed something strange in the rubble.

It was the wreckage of a Kh-55 subsonic cruise missile designed in the 1970s to carry a nuclear warhead. The warhead had been removed and ballast added to disguise the fact that it was not carrying a payload, said Gen. Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief — an assertion now backed by the Pentagon and British military intelligence.

But that was not all the intelligence officials found. The missile had been built in a Ukrainian weapons factory.

The missile, and the bomber that most likely delivered it, was part of a cache of weaponry handed over to Russia by Ukraine in the 1990s as part of an international agreement aimed at assuring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Skibitsky said.

The next month, Ukrainian forces found the remnants of two more Kh-55 missiles, both with their warheads removed, and both part of the same tranche of weapons that Ukraine had sent to Russia under the agreement.

Russia was using Ukraine’s own armaments as decoys against it. 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 react to it,” Skibitsky said, speaking in a lengthy interview at military intelligence headquarters in Kyiv last week, before the latest missile strikes across the country. “It’s like a false target.”

After the Ukrainian air defenses are engaged, 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 and some modernized with warheads.

The use of old cruise missiles — including ones built in Ukraine decades ago — is just one element in a complex and deadly conflict in which deception plays a role, along with fighting on the battleground.

As part of the 1990s agreement, known as the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal — the world’s third-largest at the time, inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union — and transfer all nuclear warheads to Russia for decommissioning in return for security assurances.

“All ballistic missiles, Tu-160 and Tu-95 strategic bombers were also handed over,” Skibitsky said. “Now, they are using Kh-55 missiles against us with these bombers. It would be better if we handed them over to the USA.”

The general also offered a detailed assessment of current Russian capabilities and Ukraine’s ability to counter the threat.

His account corresponds generally with public statements from other Ukrainian military officials, the British Ministry of Defense, the Pentagon and military analysts.

“According to our calculations, they have missiles for another three to five waves of attacks,” he said. “This is if there are 80 to 90 rockets in one wave.”

Last Monday, Russia fired more than 70 missiles at Ukraine after Ukraine struck two military installations deep inside Russia.

While Russia’s stockpiles of its most modern, precision missiles are widely believed to be running low, Skibitsky said that Russian arms factories had been able to build 240 precision Kh-101 cruise missiles and about 120 of the sea-based Kalibr cruise missiles since the start of the war, which works out to about 40 new missiles per month. Those numbers could not be independently confirmed.

Despite Western sanctions, Russia has continued to produce new precision missiles, as recently as October, according to a report released last week by Conflict Armament Research, an independent group based in Britain that identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition used in wars.

Yurii Ihnat, the spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force, said that after the latest assault, investigators found many fragments that indicated the precision cruise missiles used in the attack had been made in recent weeks.

“Russia is using newly manufactured missiles,” he told Ukrainian radio Thursday.

As the Russians seek to bolster their arsenal, Ukrainian officials say they are getting better at shooting down many types of missiles and drones fired their way.

Over the course of November, Brig. Gen. Oleksiy Hromov, a deputy chief on the Ukrainian General Staff, said that Ukrainian air defenses shot down 72% of the 239 Russian cruise missiles and 80% of the 80 Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones. They claim to have shot down 60 of the 70 missiles Monday, or 85%.

But the missiles and drones that get through can still do widespread damage, depending on what they hit. On Saturday, Ukraine shot down 10 of 15 attack drones, but several hit critical infrastructure in Odesa, leaving 1.5 million people without power.

Leaning over the table and drawing a map of Ukraine, Skibitsky outlined the four general directions from which Moscow is trying to penetrate Ukraine’s skies — sending missiles flying into Ukraine from the Black Sea in the south, from the area around the Caspian Sea to the southeast, from Russia in the east and from Belarus to the north.

During large-scale attacks, which have featured up to about 100 missiles launched within minutes of one another, they fly in from all directions at the same time.

Since October, the general said, the flight patterns of the Russian bombers have been changing, taking circuitous routes to avoid air defenses. But they do not enter Ukrainian air space, limiting their effectiveness.

Typically, Ukrainian intelligence has about an hour after Russian bombers take off from a base to track the flights before pilots reach the “fire zone” and launch missiles.

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