Ukraine's attacks on Crimea are hurting sales of Russia's S-400 air defense system, spy chief claims

green military truck driving past building with giant orange/black "Z" with blurry soldier in blue-gray camo in foreground
The vaunted surface-to-air S-400 "Triumf" missile system cannot safeguard Russia's occupation of the peninsula, Ukraine's spy chief said in a recent interview.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
  • Recent attacks on Crimea may end up hurting Russia's defense industry, Ukraine's spy chief said.

  • Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov said the attacks show "the obvious inability of Russian air defense systems."

  • Budanov said drone strikes in Moscow are also making potential customers wary of the S-400.

Ukraine's armed forces are blasting holes in Russia's claimed military superiority, exposing its next-generation S-400 air defense system as not worth the billions of dollars that Moscow has been selling it for on the global market, one of Kyiv's top intelligence officials claimed in an interview this week.

Ukraine has recently stepped up its attacks on military targets in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. On Friday, Ukraine launched a missile strike on the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, in Sevastopol, with video posted to social media showing a cloud of smoke rising from the building, CNN reported. A strike earlier in the month also damaged a number of Russian vessels.

Such attacks illustrate that Kyiv has not given up on reclaiming the Crimean peninsula, Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine's military intelligence, said in an interview with The Drive.

And they also show that Russia can't defend the territory, a lesson being learned by more than just the Kremlin, Budanov claimed.

"[Y]ou could not have missed that since the middle of August, there's been a certain intensification going on with regard to Crimea, and that might indirectly give you a hint about [Ukrainian ambitions]," Budanov said, speaking from a hotel room in Washington during a visit by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The attacks demonstrate that the vaunted surface-to-air S-400 "Triumf" missile system cannot safeguard Russia's occupation of the peninsula, Budanov continued, potentially undermining the Kremlin's sales pitch. That's especially the case since Ukraine started directly targeting — and destroying — the system.

In August, Ukraine's defense ministry claimed that it took out an S-400 system near Olenivka, a village along the Black Sea in Crimea, suggesting that the attack was carried out with longer-range Storm Shadow missiles provided by the UK. It then did so again, the next month, in a strike on the Crimean city of Yevpatoriya.

Ukraine has short-term military objectives being served by preoccupying — and destroying — Russia's air defense capabilities, Budanov said. But, he said, "from the political standpoint, we're also demonstrating the obvious inability of Russian air defense systems, which respectively makes them less lucrative on the world arms markets."

That's not mere boasting from an obvious partisan. Ukraine's recent attacks on Russia's top-tier S-400 air defense system, first deployed in the mid-2000s, have exposed potential "systemic tactical failures," according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, indicating that "Russian forces were unprepared to intercept missiles with the system or were unable to do so."

The S-400 is generally considered one of the best air-defense systems available, even attracting a member of NATO as a customer: In 2017, Turkey paid about $2.5 billion to obtain S-400 systems (Washington, which opposed the deal, has asked Ankara to transfer the systems to Ukraine, according to Reuters); India followed suit a year later, agreeing to pay about $5.5 billion for five S-400 systems, each of which consists of a vehicle loaded with missiles, paired with standalone radars, that can target high-altitude threats.

Drone strikes in Moscow, widely believed to be orchestrated by Kyiv, show the S-400 can't even keep the Russian capital safe, Budanov said.

"[W]hen the whole world sees that some drones are attacking Moscow, nobody wants to buy Russia air defense systems any longer," he said. "And that is very painful for them."

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