Russia has undertaken a major shift in its strategy in Ukraine over the past few months.
With the frontlines at a relative stalemate, Moscow has shifted its focus from heavy shelling to a brutal game of whack-a-mole in which it fires a series of drones and missiles at sensitive infrastructure in Ukraine.
The result of this bombing campaign has been substantial. Over the holidays, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “nearly nine million people” had lost electricity — nearly one-fifth of Ukraine’s pre-war population. As Barry Posen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently noted, such a tactic “could turn the winter into a brutal struggle for survival for Ukrainian civilians.”
But the campaign’s main target may lie further west. According to the New York Times, each Iranian-made suicide drone costs about $20,000, while the missiles Ukraine uses to shoot them down cost at least $140,000 and often much more. (American-made NASAMS missiles cost $500,000, and each PATRIOT round costs as much as $4 million.)
So when Russia launches 80 drone attacks on Ukraine — as it did over New Year’s weekend — the Kremlin spends about $1.6 million while forcing Kyiv (and its Western backers) to drop at least $11.2 million.
For now, these numbers fall well short of putting a dent into the $61.4 billion that the United States alone has pledged to Ukraine’s defense. And it’s uncertain whether the Kremlin is capable of mass-producing suicide drones throughout the year.
But the 80-drone barrage could be the first sign of a significant escalation in Russia’s strategy. If Moscow manages to maintain this rate of attack each weekend, then Kyiv’s backers could be on the hook for over $1 billion per year in air defenses alone.
And, when it comes to Russia’s ability to manufacture weapons, Western doubts have often failed to materialize. “Even though U.S. and British officials have regularly predicted that the Russian military would exhaust its supply of munitions, it has evidently found them somewhere,” Posen wrote in Foreign Affairs.
As Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, recently argued, the United States faces many difficult trade-offs when it comes to assistance to Ukraine, and the high price tag of certain systems will inevitably make it harder to provide others.