Ukraine Repurposes Soviet S-200 Air Defence Systems Into Ballistic Assets For Strikes on Russia

Amid growing reported shortages of surface to surface missiles, the Ukrainian Military has repurposed Soviet S-200 surface to air missile systems to fire their primary munitions ballistically for strikes on Russian targets. The areas targeted include the Crimean Peninsula and the Rostov and Kaluga regions in the southern and western Russia. Four V-880 missiles were fired, with chief of the Russian Air Force General Staff Viktor Afzalov reporting two were neutralised using electronic warfare assets and another two kinetically intercepted. “There have been no casualties or destruction,” the Defence Ministry reported. Gerasimov nevertheless instructed the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces to identify storage units, training sites and launch positions of Ukrainian S-200 systems and similar assets. The S-200 formed the backbone of the USSR’s long range air defences into the 1990s, before being phased out in Russian in favour of longer ranged new variants of the S-300 and S-400 systems. With an engagement range of 300km against aircraft, the system could potentially reach targets well over 500km away if fired ballistically. 

S-200s were largely phased out due to both the age of their sensors and guidance systems and to their lack of mobility, which limited their survivability in the face of potential adversaries’ precision strike assets. The system’s retirement in Ukraine shortly after the turn of the century seriously curtailed the coverage of its air defence network, as unlike Russia no replacement systems were procured. This occurred in parallel to deep cuts to its fighter and interceptor fleets. Restored S-200s are not known to have been used in an air to air role against Russian forces, but would provide a significantly greater reach than any other systems the country deploys including newly delivered Patriot missile batteries from the United States. Ukrainian S-200s’ only notable prior action was the accidental shutdown of Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 from Tel Aviv in October 2001 which killed all passengers onboard. As Ukraine was not known to have kept any of its retired S-200s in reserve, the possibility remains that they were delivered from former Warsaw Pact states. Poland is a particularly likely candidate as it is the only one that continues to operate the system and has delivered Soviet-built air defence assets to Ukraine in the past.

Firing missiles from the S-200 system ballistically is far from unprecedented, with North Korea having done so on November 2, 2022, with a single missile landing 60km off the South Korean coast in a show of force. While South Korea moved to recover the missile, the fact that it was a decades old Soviet built air defence asset, rather than a modern North Korean surface to surface missile, denied it any valuable intelligence, which made the S-200 ideal for the launch. Where Ukraine retired the S-200 without replacement, North Korea much like Russia replaced the system with indigenous mobile long range assets such as the Pyongae-5. Other remaining operators of the S-200 include Poland, which is expected to replace them with American Patriots, and Iran which has modified the systems extensively to allow them to deploy from mobile launchers and integrate with newer Russian and ingenious air defence assets. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan continue to operate the systems, having inherited them from the USSR, while Syria which was the S-200’s first export client also continues to rely on it.