Russia uses hypersonic missiles in Ukraine for first time

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MOSCOW (AFP, REUTERS) - Russia used its newest Kinzhal hypersonic missiles on Friday (March 18) to destroy an underground missile and ammunition storage site in western Ukraine close to the border with Nato member Romania, in what analysts said was the first use of such weapons in the world. 

The defence ministry made the announcement on Saturday, with the escalation coming on the 24th day of the conflict as Ukrainians are putting up fierce resistance and the advance of Russian troops stalled, according to Western officials.

The missile strike comes as reports emerge on the number of people killed in a separate air strike in Mykolaiv in the south on Friday, killing dozens of young Ukrainian ensigns at their brigade headquarters.

An ensign who gave his name as Yevgen said it was home to about 200 of them.

A military spokeswoman said the final toll was still unknown, as rescuers and soldiers were still pulling out bodies as well as survivors Saturday, according to AFP reporters at the scene.

“We’re still counting but it’s impossible to know, given the state of the bodies,” one rescuer said.

The BBC quoted a Belgian reporter at the scene as saying 80 bodies had so far been pulled out of the ruins. 

Russia has launched a number of deadly air strikes against military sites in recent days, including Friday's use of the hypersonic missile. 

Russia has never before admitted using the high-precision weapon in combat, and state news agency RIA Novosti said it was the first use of the Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic weapons during the conflict in pro-Western Ukraine.

“The Kinzhal aviation missile system with hypersonic aeroballistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse containing missiles and aviation ammunition in the village of Deliatyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region”, the Russian defence ministry said on Saturday.

A defence ministry spokesman declined to comment when reached by Agence France-Presse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has termed the Kinzhal air-launched missile “an ideal weapon” that flies at 10 times the speed of sound and can overcome air-defence systems.

The Kinzhal missile was one of an array of new weapons Putin unveiled in his state-of-the-nation address in 2018.

A 2018 photo of Russia's MiG-31 supersonic interceptor jets carrying Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and flying over Moscow's Red Square during the Victory Day military parade. PHOTO: AFP

Deliatyn, a village in the foothills of the picturesque Carpathian mountains, is located outside the city of Ivano-Frankivsk.

The region of Ivano-Frankivsk shares a 50-kilometre border with Romania. 

Hypersonic missiles can be used to deliver conventional warheads, more rapidly and precisely than other missiles.  

But their capacity to deliver nuclear weapons could add to a country’s threat, increasing the danger of a nuclear conflict. 

“This is the first case of the use of hypersonic weapons in combat in the world,” military analyst Vasily Kashin told AFP.

Russia leads the hypersonics race, followed by China and the United States, and several other countries are working on the technology.  

Kashin, head of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, said that compared to cruise missiles hypersonic weapons were more efficient at destroying underground storage sites. 

“A hypersonic missile can have higher penetration and destructive power due to its very high speed,” he said.  Like the much slower, often subsonic cruise missile, a hypersonic missile is manoeuvrable, making it harder to track and defend against.

‘Propaganda effect’

But some experts have said Russia might be exaggerating the abilities of its hypersonic arsenal. Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer suggested that the use of the Kinzhal would change little on the ground in Ukraine.

“Fundamentally this does not change anything on the battlefield, but it gives a certain psychological and propaganda effect to scare everyone,” he told AFP. 

He said Russian forces could have used the advanced missiles also because they might be running out of other weapons. 

“The costs are too high,” he said. “No one expected such a long war.” 

Joseph Henrotin, defence strategy researcher and chief editor of DSI, a French military review, struck a similar note.

Taking to Twitter, he suggested that Russia might be running out of Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems or wanted to raise the stakes by deploying a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in Ukraine.

Separately, Ukraine's defence ministry said late on Friday that it lost access to the Sea of Azov "temporarily" as invading Russian forces were tightening their grip around the Sea's major port of Mariupol.

"The occupiers have partially succeeded in the Donetsk operational district, temporarily depriving Ukraine of access to the Sea of Azov," Ukraine's defence ministry said in a statement.

The ministry did not specify in its statement whether Ukraine's forces have regained access to the Sea.

Russia said on Friday that its forces were "tightening the noose" around Mariupol, where an estimated 80 per cent of the city's homes had been damaged.

Mariupol, with its strategic location on the coast of the Sea of Azov, has been a target since the start of the war on Feb 24.

The city lies on the route between the Russian-occupied peninsula of Crimea to the west, and the Donetsk region to the east, which is partially controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Russia claimed as early as March 1 that its forces had cut off the Ukrainian military from the Sea of Azov.

The Ukrainian military also imposed a 38-hour curfew in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, starting at 1400 GMT (10pm Singapore time) on Saturday and ending early on Monday, deputy mayor Anatoliy Kurtiev said.

"Do not go outside at this time!" he said in an online post.

The regional capital has become an important point of transit for some of the 35,000 people estimated to have fled the besieged Mariupol city in the south-east.

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