They are 40 years old and were originally designed to bring nuclear death to the West in the event of war. Now the Russian AS-15-Kent cruise missiles have apparently been used in Ukraine. Crucial detail: the nuclear warheads had previously been removed.

The British Ministry of Defense reported on this on Saturday. The British secret service has images of a wreckage showing an AS-15 Kent missile fired at Ukraine.

The ministry tweeted: “The warhead was probably replaced with ballast. While such an inactive system will still inflict some damage from the missile’s kinetic energy and unused fuel, it is unlikely to produce reliable effects against intended targets.”

A week ago there were unconfirmed reports that Russia had shot down a cruise missile with simulated nuclear warheads over Ukraine. The Strategic Communications Center of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (StratCom) then explained in a post shared on Telegram: “Put simply – for this strike the Orks took at least one Kh-55 from their ‘nuclear arsenal’, ‘unscrewed’ the nuclear warhead from this missile and replaced with an empty ‘block’ and fired at Ukraine.”

Since mid-November, Russia has massively expanded its airstrikes on Ukraine. Up to 100 rockets hit every day. The consequences: dozens of civilians were killed, millions of households were or are still without electricity.

But why is the Russian leadership now also firing largely ineffective, “defused” rockets at Ukraine?

The British Ministry of Defense suspects that the Russian leadership could use the decommissioned cruise missiles to distract Ukraine’s air defenses. Russia expert Stefan Meister also believes this to be plausible: “The point here is to disable the Ukrainian air defenses in order to destroy even more. A clear sign that Russia is continuing this war with undiminished harshness and cynicism,” Meister told FOCUS online.

The AS-15 was developed in the 1970s as a counterpart to the US BGM-109 Tomahawk. At that time, the Soviet military leadership concluded that, in the event of a nuclear war, it would be more effective to deploy a large number of small subsonic cruise missiles than the large and heavy supersonic missiles then in the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

Serial production of the system ironically began in December 1980 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. All operational AS-15-Kent were equipped exclusively with a nuclear warhead, allegedly with a yield of 200 kilotons. That’s more than ten times the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

The airborne cruise missile has a maximum range of 3,500 kilometers and flies at a comparatively low speed of around 950 kilometers per hour. Several thousand of these cruise missiles were produced in different versions until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Following reports of the use of a “nuclear dummy” in Ukraine, military experts are now puzzling over the Kremlin’s motives. Given Putin’s bellicose rhetoric, the latest development could be yet another attempt to provoke the West. There had always been speculation that the Russian President could use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

The blogger and specialist in air warfare, Thomas Newdick, considers it unlikely that Putin wants to send “a signal to the West” by deploying nuclear-capable missiles. “The West is well acquainted with the capabilities and limitations of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.”

Rather, it is plausible that Russia decided to remove aging AS-15 Kents from its roster and instead use them without a warhead to disrupt Ukraine’s air defenses. This makes particular sense when the rockets are near the end of their useful life, Newdick analyses: “It’s better to use them unarmed (…) than simply scrap them.”

The puzzling use of the AS-15 Kent in turn puts the focus of interest on the state of the Russian missile arsenal for military experts. Russia itself does not disclose any information on this. However, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry recently released figures showing how many rockets the Kremlin has fired at the country since the war broke out – and how many are left.

Accordingly, the Russian military leadership is said to have only 119 Iskander missiles, just 13 percent of the pre-war arsenal. Only the Russian stocks of the S-300, missiles that are actually intended for air defense and not for targeted ground operations, are far from exhausted, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

The US think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) also assumes that, given its massive airstrikes in recent weeks, Russia is having increasing difficulties in finding high-precision weapons and is increasingly dependent on supplies from Iran. This is consistent with the assessment of the British Ministry of Defense, which assumes a “serious shortage of cruise missiles” and sees the improvised approach as evidence of “how much Russia’s stocks of long-range missiles are coming to an end”.

So there is much to suggest that the use of the old Russian nuclear dummies is evidence of a highly tense situation in the Kremlin’s missile arsenals. But, Russia expert Stefan Meister warns: “The Russian missile arsenal is certainly running out, but there are still enough missiles. We should not underestimate the effectiveness of the Russian army.”

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