Ukrainian drone strikes inside Russia once seemed like an unthinkable possibility. But such attacks have become an increasingly common feature of the Moscow war, with an emboldened warning from Kyiv that more are to come.
A series of drone strikes have peppered Russian cities, including Moscow, throughout the summer. This Friday one of the most dramatic so far occurred: marine drones attacked an important Russian port hundreds of kilometers from territory controlled by Ukraine.
They have distracted themselves from a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has yet to produce tangible results on the battlefield and have taken the war to Russia.
But they are not without risks for Kyiv, which is trying to gain the upper hand in the war while keeping relations with Western nations wary of any hint of escalation.
a series of attacks
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned last week that the war is “gradually returning” to Russia, after the latest in a series of drone strikes inside the country that Moscow has pinned on Kyiv.
Incidents last weekend showed buildings in Moscow attacked by drones. This Tuesday, a drone hit the same skyscraper in Moscow that was attacked on Sunday.
Those offensives followed two similar attempted attacks that were reported by Russian officials in early July, and numerous such incidents in June. In May, an apparent drone attack on the Kremlin generated dramatic images of explosions in the skies over the Russian seat of power.
Ukraine has not generally taken direct responsibility for the attacks, though its responses have grown more optimistic in recent weeks. “The distance and denial between Kyiv and these attacks is significantly less,” Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told CNN. “Now there seems to be almost a tacit acknowledgment that it was them.”
Ukrainian Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, whose Ministry of Digital Transformation oversees the country’s “Drone Army” procurement plan, said there would be more drone strikes as Kyiv ramps up its parallel summer counter-offensive aimed at driving out the Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.
Limited but effective weapons systems
It is difficult to establish exactly which weapon systems are being used in the attacks and pinpoint which buildings are being attacked, as both the Russian and Ukrainian sides refuse to release details of the incidents.
But it is clear that there are big differences between these attacks, which are limited in scope, have caused few casualties and have not been directed against residential buildings, such as those that Moscow has launched indiscriminately against Ukrainian population centers.
“Whether they hit their intended targets or not, the targets appear to be buildings that are tied to the proceedings of the war in Ukraine,” Keir Giles, a Russia expert at Chatham House and author of foreign policy books for the UK, told CNN. Russia. “In that sense, it’s a very different approach than what we’ve seen in Russia, with indiscriminate terror attacks.”
Giles notes that there is “an open question as to how exactly Ukraine is carrying out the attacks.” But the attacks “have exposed the incapacity of Russia’s defences,” he added.
The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have apparently been launched “carry a fairly small warhead and have been used in small numbers, so in terms of direct military effect, it’s limited, to put it mildly.” Barry said.
“The types of systems Ukraine is using are simple, comparatively speaking, but for their purpose they are effective,” Barrie added.
There is no crucial suggestion that the weapons were donated by the West. “These are systems that Ukraine can make itself,” Barrie said, allowing Kyiv to send military messages to the Russian people alongside its defensive warfare at home, which NATO nations have backed with military aid.
“This is fundamentally about showing that Moscow is not out of reach,” Barrie said.
Bring the war to Russia
Kyiv will happily accept the limited military impact of drone strikes, because the offensives play a much larger role in the war.
“Ukraine has identified Russian popular opinion and attitudes towards the war as one of the key areas they need to target in order to end the war,” Giles said. “As long as Russia can pretend the war is something that happens elsewhere, nothing is going to dent that popular support.”
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