'Knocking Down' Ukraine's Patriot Battery Would Give Russia A Much-Needed Propaganda Coup

December 25, 2022


Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared Russia will destroy the MIM-104 Patriot air defense missile system the United States is delivering to Ukraine. Striking the single most advanced system the West has agreed to deliver Ukraine could indeed give Putin a significant propaganda coup.

"The Patriot air defense is outdated. An antidote will always be found … Russia will knock down the Patriot system," he said on Dec. 22.

Putin made the statement a mere day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington D.C., his first trip abroad since Russia invaded on Feb. 22. As part of the Ukrainian leader's successful visit, the Department of Defense announced that the U.S. would provide an additional $1.85 billion in security assistance to Kyiv that includes, for the first time, a Patriot battery.

The announcement came as Russia continues bombarding Ukrainian cities using Iranian Shahed-136 loitering munitions — single-use drones that crash into their targets and explode.

It's highly unlikely that Ukraine will use its Patriot against these loitering munitions, which can be used in large numbers to punch through air defenses to reach their targets. After all, firing Patriot missiles against Shaheds would prove prohibitively expensive since the Shaheds cost as little as $20,000 each, while a single Patriot intercept missile costs about $4 million.

The Patriot could, on the other hand, prove invaluable for Ukraine for intercepting the short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) Iran might soon deliver to Russia, which are far more difficult to shoot down. Russia could have these SRBMs by the time the Ukrainian Patriot is fully operational sometime in 2023.

However, 'knocking down' the Patriot battery would have much more political value for Putin than strategic significance on the battlefield.

On Sept. 14, 2019, Iranian-built drones struck oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khrais in eastern Saudi Arabia with pinpoint precision. Putin promptly used the attack to deride the failure of U.S.-supplied Saudi air defenses to protect these vital installations and urged Riyadh to follow in Iran and Turkey's footsteps by buying Russian S-300 or S-400 systems.

He did not have reason to boast for long since 2020 proved a bad year for Russian air defenses. In Libya, Turkish-built drones destroyed Russian-built Pantsir-S1 medium-range systems and helped decisively shift the tide in that country's civil war against the faction backed by Moscow. Mere months later, Azerbaijan's Israeli-built loitering munitions also destroyed several of Armenia's S-300 systems in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Putin may ultimately use Iranian-supplied weaponry and Iranian tactics in any attempt he makes to eliminate Ukraine's Patriot. Specifically, he might try and replicate a combat-tested strategy used by the Houthis against the Saudi-led coalition during the Yemen war.

That strategy saw the Houthis use their Qasef-1 loitering munitions, a variant of the Iranian Ababil-2, against the coalition's Patriots. The munitions were programmed with open-source GPS coordinates of the Patriot positions, which they used to target their radars. Once they neutralized those radars, the Houthis would fire SRBMs, many of them also based on Iranian designs, without worrying about the Patriots successfully intercepting them.

Putin's patron Tehran would likely welcome a similar attack against Ukraine's Patriot since it would demonstrably signal that its technology can neutralize one of the most advanced air defense systems the U.S. has developed. It wouldn't be surprising if Iranian military personnel even assist Russia in the planning and execution of such an attack.

If the Ukrainian Patriot is fixed in place in Kyiv, which is very likely, Russia may launch an unprecedented number of Shaheds in swarm attacks directed against its radar and bombard the area with SRBMs to ensure the destruction of that battery. By doing so, Moscow would signal that its attacks are unstoppable despite the efforts of the U.S. and its allies to build up and enhance Ukraine's air defenses.

Such an attempt could succeed for one primary reason.

From early in the war, Ukraine proved highly adept and resourceful at moving around its air defense systems to evade destruction. Its U.S.-supplied M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) similarly wreaked havoc against Russian targets and evaded retaliatory fire thanks to their' shoot and scoot' capability that enabled swift relocation following bombardments.

On the other hand, the Patriot will not prove nearly as easy to move around and evade destruction. While a single battery can only need as few as three personnel to operate, up to 90 are required to move it and set up all its components. As retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling recently told CNN, "These systems don't pick up and move around the battlefield. You put them in place somewhere that defends your most strategic target, like a city, like Kyiv."

Nevertheless, Ukraine may again prove resourceful, and its Patriot battery may well survive against serious odds.

Either way, Washington has never suggested that supplying the Patriot will constitute a so-called game-changer in this war. Far from it. The delivery is much more symbolic of continued American resolve to support Ukraine. However, its destruction could likewise prove symbolic for Putin, who may conclude that launching a major operation to destroy it would be a worthy endeavor purely for the propaganda value.



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