On December 15 a Russian Kh-22 cruise missile fired by a Tu-22M supersonic bomber struck and partially destroyed a residential building in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Dnepr, which was quickly presented by Kiev and its supporters in the West as a serious Russian war crime that caused dozens of civilian casualties. Kh-22s have been relied on heavily for strikes on Ukrainian targets, and although developed for anti shipping roles the massive Soviet built arsenal was well preserved over the last three decades where most other inventories from that time have deteriorated or been retired. In contrast to predominant Ukrainian portrayals of the incident, senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, Aleksey Arestovich, highlighted that the strike appeared to be accidental and was the result of interference with the missile by Ukrainian air defences. “It was shot down. It apparently fell on the [apartment] block. But it exploded when falling,” he stated, leading the mayor of Dnepr, Boris Filatov, to brand the presidential aide “a narcissistic animal and a foul mouth” and calling for Ukrainian security services to take action against him. If confirmed, it would mark the latest of many accidents involving Ukraine’s air defences, with missiles from S-300 systems having landed in neighbouring Poland and Belarus in the past and caused civilian casualties in the former.
Ukrainian officials have highlighted that they have no means of countering strikes by Kh-22 missiles, with Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuri Ignat stating following the strike on the apartment building: “I emphasise that it is impossible to shoot down Kh-22 missiles with the means we have in our arsenal.” He highlighted the missiles’ speed as the reason. The Kh-22 entered production and frontline service in 1962, and was considered decades ahead of its time with a design intended to reliably penetrate the multi layered air defences of carrier strike groups. They achieved this with irregular trajectories and a very high near hypersonic speed of Mach 4.6. The missiles were designed to allow Tu-22M bomber units to neutralise enemy warships from very long ranges, and were produced in very large numbers accordingly as the Russian bomber fleet at the time numbered in the high hundreds. The Soviet Union’s disintegration and contraction of the Russian defence sector have meant that the 60 year old missile still has no clean sheet replacement, although an enhanced derivative the Kh-32 entered service in 2016 and has also become available as a modernisation package for older Kh-22 missiles. Russia today can only produce new cruise missiles at a fraction of the scale that the Soviet Union could before it, however. Ukraine’s inability to neutralise the missiles comes as its air defence network has been increasingly depleted, with replenishments for stocks of S-300 and BuK missile systems that form its backbone being unavailable due as Russia, and in the BuK’s case also Belarus, are their only producers.