Russia Used a New Hypersonic Missile, Ukraine Says

Ukraine said it had evidence that Russia had used a new hypersonic cruise missile for the first time in an attack last week, a development that might, if confirmed, pose another challenge to the country’s already strained air defenses.

A preliminary analysis of missile fragments by the government-run Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise concluded that a 3M22 Zircon missile had been used in a Feb. 7 attack that targeted cities across Ukraine. Markings typical of the missile were found on the debris, the institute said.

“We see elements that are characteristic to the 3M22 Zircon missile. Parts and fragments of the engine and steering mechanisms have specific markings,” Oleksandr Ruvin, the head of the institute, said in a social media post on Monday afternoon that included a video of the missile’s wreckage.

The Russian authorities have not commented on the use of a Zircon missile and the evidence presented by the institute could not be independently verified. American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they were assessing the claim but could not confirm its use in combat on Feb. 7.

Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow and expert on sea power at the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, expressed caution, saying that none of the warships from which the missile had previously been tested were operating in the Black Sea at the time of the attack, meaning that the debris might belong to another type of missile.

The use of a Zircon would be a new step in Russia’s air campaign against Ukrainian military and civilian infrastructure.

The debris Ukraine says was from a Zircon was found in the Kyiv region, a spokesperson for the forensic institute said without disclosing the precise location. Ukraine’s military said it had shot down several cruise missiles during the attack, but made no mention of intercepting a Zircon.

Ukraine’s air defenses have proved relatively effective over the past year, often intercepting up to three-quarters of the missiles fired at its territory. But in recent months, Russia has launched increasingly complex barrages of different missiles and drones in an attempt to saturate and penetrate these defenses. This was again the case in last week’s attack, which killed five people and involved 64 Russian cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones — as well as a Zircon missile, according to Ukrainian officials.

Should Russia’s earlier description of the missile’s capabilities prove correct, experts say, it could evade powerful missile defenses such as the U.S.-designed Patriot system, which Ukraine has used to shoot down other Russian hypersonic and cruise missiles. The Russian authorities have said that the Zircon can reach eight times the speed of sound, has a range of 625 miles and can carry a 660-pound warhead.

The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in the United States, said that, if that information is accurate, the Zircon missile would be one of the fastest in the world, “making it nearly impossible to defend against due to its speed alone.”

The missile “has no analogues in any country in the world,” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said early last year.

Mr. Kaushal noted that the missile was first flight-tested in 2015 and declared operational by the end of 2022 — an unusually rapid development cycle. He said it had been tested off two warships, the Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate and the Yasen-class submarine, before being used to arm the frigate in January 2023.

But he noted that neither of those two warships “are actually in the Black Sea at the moment” and that “it would be unusual for the missile to be fired in live combat for the first time from a vessel from which it has never been tested before.”

The Ukrainian authorities made no mention of the launch platform for the missile.

The fact that Russia has not reported using a Zircon missile last week also raises questions. When it first used a Kinzhal missile, in March of 2022, Russia’s Defense Ministry quickly communicated about it.

How the Zircon would change calculations on the Ukrainian battlefield remains to be seen.

Russia has claimed in the past that its air-launched hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, some of the most sophisticated weapons in its arsenal, are unstoppable. But after Ukraine received the Patriot system, it managed to shoot down several Kinzhals before they could hit their targets.

Mr. Kaushal also said that the Zircon’s combat effectiveness remains unknown, with questions surrounding its claimed speed and accuracy.

Russia’s ability to produce and operate Zircon missiles, “especially as the program will compete for financial and other resources with priorities like rebuilding the Russian ground forces,” also remains in doubt, Mr. Kaushal said in a research paper published last year.

Julian Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.