Russia may have stepped up the frequency and intensity of missile and drone attacks on Ukraine’s capital, but Kyiv’s air defences appear to be holding firm.

So what is the military benefit of targeting urban populations, and why is Vladimir Putin doing so?

Historically, wars were fought to destroy the enemy’s army and occupy its capital. Mr Putin remains focused on destroying Ukraine’s ability to fight (just witness the grinding war of attrition in Bakhmut) and occupying Kyiv by laying it under aerial siege.

But will this onslaught help the Russian war effort, or is it simply the actions of an angry and frustrated autocrat?

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Explosions heard in Kyiv

Russia tried to take Kyiv very early in the war (remember the 40-mile convoy of military equipment), but although that attempt failed, Mr Putin will still see the Ukrainian capital – the seat of power – as the ultimate prize.

Most military analysts believe the objectives of Mr Putin’s so-called special military operation remain two-fold: securing Crimea; and seizing the Donbas.

Mindful that military resources are always limited, Russia objective should be laser-focused on these objectives.

Having culminated in Bakhmut, Russia should now be leveraging its “superpower” advantage to target Ukrainian resupply lines and its preparations for the forthcoming offensive.

It will be very difficult for Ukraine to hide its military preparations from Russian satellites; besides, Russia will have a multitude of spies operating within Ukraine that would be able to provide real-time targeting information to inform Russia’s ballistic missile capability.

Instead, in apparent response to Ukraine’s “temerity” in conducting drone attacks against Moscow, Mr Putin is targeting his limited supplies of missiles at the civilian population of Kyiv.

Read more:
Why is Russia attacking Kyiv instead of military targets?

Alex Crawford describes scene in Kyiv after Russian attack

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What Kyiv attacks can tell us

Has Putin made the same mistake as Hitler?

In the Second World War, Nazi Germany was preparing to invade Britain, but first Hitler had to destroy the RAF.

The Battle of Britain brought the RAF to its knees; however, in anger at the allies’ efforts to bomb German cities, Hitler took his foot off the throat of the RAF and switched to targeting London.

An irrational decision, but one which allowed the RAF to recover and helped turn the tide of the war.

Has Mr Putin – a politician with no military experience – made the same mistake by targeting Kyiv?

Russia’s imported drones: Irritating but not usually deadly

Russia is using long-range Shahed 136 drones – imported from Iran – to conduct most of the strikes against Kyiv.

These inexpensive and simple drones fly at around 100mph, and although they have a nasty punch, they are not difficult to shoot down (even if the wreckage still wrecks lives).

They are not unlike wasps in summer; irritating, and painful if they sting, but not usually deadly. Besides, few drones now get through.

Russia also continues to fire long-range ballistic missiles against Kyiv; these are usually very accurate weapons and more difficult to shoot down, but the provision of specialist Western air defence capabilities – such as US Patriot – has proven extremely effective at protecting the capital.

So why does Russia continue to waste limited supplies of expensive missiles against non-military targets?

Firstly, Ukrainian military capability is hidden, mobile, and dispersed.

A slick time-sensitive-targeting (TST) capability involves linking satellite imagery to HQ analysis, before tasking a unit to prosecute the target – and swiftly. Simple? For the Russians, no.

TST is difficult and requires great teamwork between different agencies – the West invests heavily in the people and technology required for success; Russia does not. Russia cannot conduct high-tempo TST, so instead does what it can – target civilians.

Secondly, Mr Putin does not have any military training, so strategy, doctrine and main effort are not phrases that resonate with him.

Instead, he is driven by symbolism – Bakhmut had limited military value, but Mr Putin wanted a success for his May Day celebration.

Likewise, he wants to punish President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for his audacity in fighting back, but like Hitler and the Battle of Britain, Mr Putin is allowing emotion to override military strategy.

Ballistic missiles are complex weapons; Russia is currently using them up faster than they can be replaced.

The waves of missile attacks on Kyiv do not have any military benefit and are not contributing to Russia’s war ends; they are simply the actions of a frustrated leader who is seeking to vent anger at his tenacious opponent.

This lack of a ruthless focus on military objectives is a critical weakness of Russia’s military machine, which we can expect to see exploited in the coming months.

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