Ukraine Defeats Russian Drone Swarm, as NATO Head Says Kyiv Needs More Arms

For the second day in a row, Russia launched an aerial barrage at Ukraine on Friday, but the Ukrainian military said it had intercepted all of the attacks, as the warring nations wage a lethal struggle of shifting offensive and defensive tactics.

The latest assault used 16 Iranian-made drones overnight, all of which were shot down, the Ukrainian air force said — a rare shutout, coming a day after Russian forces fired 70 cruise missiles and a smaller number of drones, some of which reached their targets.

The attack came as NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, urged other countries to step up military support for Ukraine to fight off the Russian invasion, providing more weapons and — perhaps more important, he said — more ammunition for the weapons it already has. While there is likely to be a negotiated peace eventually, he said in an interview with the German news agency DPA, the military picture will determine the strength of Ukraine’s bargaining position.

“So if you want a negotiated peaceful solution ensuring that Ukraine prevails as an independent democratic state, the best way of achieving that is to provide Ukraine with military support,” he said.

Contrails from missiles seen over Kyiv on Thursday evening. Credit…Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For Ukraine, the Kremlin’s invasion in February put an initial premium on antitank weapons. As movement slowed to a crawl, more and better artillery became crucial. Each time, the West supplied the weapons.

After Ukraine’s forces began to mount successful counteroffensives and retake territory, the Kremlin shifted three months ago to increased aerial attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and its cities, leaving civilians without power, heat, cell service and sometimes water, in deadly winter weather.

That has made air defenses paramount for Ukraine. As those defenses have become more robust — again, with Western help — and more skilled, shooting down most of the incoming missiles and drones, the Russians have adopted the tactic of mass barrages, trying to overwhelm defensive systems in hopes that some warheads will reach their targets.

Running low on missiles, the Russians are relying more on drones bought from Iran. The drones are much cheaper but also pack less of a punch and are far easier to intercept. Ukrainian troops have sometimes used small arms to shoot them down, so the Russians tend to launch them in the dark.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Friday, in his nightly video address, that air defenses had been a primary topic of a meeting he held earlier in the day with military leaders.

“This year, we not only maintained our air defenses, but we made them stronger than ever. But in the new year Ukrainian air defense will become even stronger, even more effective,” he said. “Ukrainian air defense can become the most powerful in Europe, and this will be a guarantee of security not only for our country, but also for the entire continent.

Holub Liudmyla at a funeral in Kyiv on Friday, for her son Ilya Grabar, a Ukrainian soldier who was killed in the Donetsk region. Credit…Laura Boushnak for The New York Times

Mr. Zelensky and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia are scheduled to give New Year’s Eve speeches to their respective nations on Saturday, a likely split-screen of alternative realities. Mr. Zelensky’s addresses tend to take grim developments head-on. Mr. Putin’s usually elide bad news for Russia, either ignoring the war or presenting false pictures of Russian progress and of Ukraine as a phony without an identity, controlled by fascists, that commits rampant atrocities.

While Ukraine is far less authoritarian than Russia, Mr. Zelensky has been criticized for undermining press freedoms, and on Thursday he signed off on a law expanding the government’s regulatory power over news media, according to Ukrainian media. It gives the government the power to fine media organizations, revoke their licenses, temporarily block certain online outlets without a court order, and request that social media platforms and search engines remove content that violates the law.

Ukrainian officials have described the law as one step toward meeting the conditions for someday joining the European Union, but Ukrainian journalists and press freedom watchdogs say it goes much further, and voiced concerns that Kyiv is using the E.U. standards as a pretext to seize greater control of the press.

For his part, Mr. Putin, in a significantly weakened position, held a video meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, trying to strengthen the relationship with his most important ally. “We share the same views on the causes, course and logic of the ongoing transformation of the global geopolitical landscape, in the face of unprecedented pressure and provocations from the West,” Mr. Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin.

A photo released by state media showing President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping during a video conference on Friday. Credit…Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, via Associated Press

Mr. Putin launched the war expecting a quick victory that would leave Russia stronger and in control of Ukraine. Instead it has been a debacle. Though Russia’s military still holds much Ukrainian territory, it has been forced into retreat, has suffered heavy human casualties and equipment losses, and has been exposed as surprisingly weak. Russia’s economy is staggering under sanctions, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country.

As a result, Russia has become highly dependent on China for trade and diplomatic support, but that backing has not been as wholehearted as Mr. Putin would like. China’s government, while not publicly critical of the invasion, has expressed concerns about the war.

In the face of Russia’s continued bombardment of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure — described by human rights groups, the United Nations and Western countries as a possible war crime — the United States and its allies are working with Ukraine to weave together a range of technology, weapons, tactics and intelligence to thwart air attacks. Western governments have raised alarms about Iran potentially selling Russia ballistic missiles, which are much harder to shoot down than either drones or cruise missiles.

The United States has delivered two NASAMS air defense missile systems to Ukraine, along with interceptor missiles for Hawk medium-range and Avenger short-range defensive systems, and more than 1,600 short-range, shoulder-fired Stinger antiaircraft missiles, officials said.

President Biden has also approved sending a battery of Patriot missiles, the United States’ most advanced ground-based missile defense system, which Ukraine has long coveted. But it is likely to be several months before Ukrainian troops are trained to use it and the system is deployed.

Reporting was contributed by David Pierson, Anton Troianovski, Anushka Patil, Shashank Bengali and Eric Schmitt.

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