(CNN) — Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian territory once seemed an unimaginable possibility. But such attacks are becoming more frequent in the war with Moscow, and Kyiv is boldly warning that there will be more.
Over the summer, Russian cities, including Moscow, were hit by a series of drone strikes. One of the most dramatic events happened this Friday: Naval drones attacked an important Russian port hundreds of kilometers from Ukrainian-controlled territory.
They diverted from the Ukrainian counter-offensive, which has so far failed to produce tangible results on the battlefield, and moved the war to Russia.
But they are not without risks for Kyiv, which is trying to gain the upper hand in the war while remaining wary of any hint of escalation in relations with Western countries.
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series of attacks
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week warned that the war was “gradually returning” to Russia after the latest in a series of domestic drone strikes that Moscow attributed to Kyiv.
Incidents over the weekend have shown that buildings in Moscow have been attacked by drones. On Tuesday, a drone crashed into the same skyscraper in Moscow that was attacked on Sunday.
These offensives follow two similar attacks reported by Russian officials in early July and numerous similar incidents in June. In May, an apparent drone attack on the Kremlin gave rise to dramatic footage of explosions in the skies above the Russian center of power.
Ukraine has generally not claimed direct responsibility for the attacks, although its response has become more optimistic in recent weeks. “The distance and deterrence between Kiev and these attacks is significantly less,” Douglas Barry, a senior fellow in the military aerospace division at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told CNN. “Now there seems to be an almost tacit admission that it was them.”
Ukrainian Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, whose Ministry of Digital Transformation oversees the country’s Army of Drones procurement plan, said there will be more drone strikes as Kiev ramps up a parallel summer counteroffensive aimed at driving Russian troops out of Ukraine.
Limited but effective weapons systems
It is difficult to ascertain which weapons systems were used in the attacks and to determine which buildings were attacked, as both the Russian and Ukrainian sides refuse to disclose details of the incidents.
But it is clear that there are big differences between these attacks, which are limited in scope, resulted in few casualties, and were not directed against residential buildings, such as those that Moscow indiscriminately carried out against Ukrainian population centers.
“Whether they hit their intended targets or not, the targets appear to be buildings related to the course of the war in Ukraine,” Keir Giles, Russia expert at Chatham House and foreign policy writer for the UK, told CNN. Russia. “In that sense, it’s a very different approach than what we saw in Russia, with indiscriminate terrorist attacks.”
Giles notes that “it remains an open question how exactly Ukraine carries out the attacks.” But the attacks “demonstrated the failure of the Russian defense,” he added.
The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that appear to have been launched “carry a fairly small warhead and have been used in small numbers, so in terms of direct military impact, they are, to put it mildly, limited,” Barry said.
“The types of systems that Ukraine uses are relatively simple, but they are effective for their intended purpose,” Barry added.
There is no fundamental assumption that the weapons were donated by the West. “These are systems that Ukraine can create itself,” Barry said, allowing Kyiv to send military messages to the Russian people along with a defensive war at home that NATO countries have supported with military aid.
“It is primarily about showing that Moscow is within reach,” Barry said.
Bring war to Russia
Kyiv will gladly accept the limited military impact of drone strikes, because offensive actions play a much larger role in the war.
“Ukraine has identified public opinion and Russian attitudes towards the war as one of the key areas they need to pay attention to in order to end the war,” Giles said. “As long as Russia can pretend that the war is happening somewhere else, nothing can undermine this popular support.”
Ukrainian officials openly discussed the propaganda element of the attacks. Yuriy Ignat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said the latest drone strikes on Moscow were intended to shock Russians who, after the Kremlin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, believed war was still a long way off.
“In Russia, something always flies, just like in Moscow. Now the war is affecting those who were not worried,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that the Russian authorities like to turn a blind eye, saying that they have intercepted everything…something.”
Early signs indicate that the recent attacks have caused concern among the already nervous class of military experts in Russia.
Criticism by at least one well-known military blogger that Russia failed to defend buildings from such attacks was taken up by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). In a recent update, the organization wrote that “Russian authorities will likely find it difficult to strike a balance between the need to assuage domestic concerns about continued drone strikes deep behind Russian lines and continued denial from Russian President Vladimir Putin to fully mobilize Russian society for war.” and its attendant consequences.
It is notoriously difficult to measure public opinion in Russia. But anecdotal reports at least speak of the impact drone strikes have on those in close proximity to the strikes.
“My friends and I rented an apartment to come here and relax, and at some point we heard an explosion, it was like a wave, everyone jumped,” a witness told Reuters after a jolt was felt in Moscow over the weekend. “There was a lot of smoke and nothing could be seen. You could see flames from above.
“It seems to provoke the kind of unexpected reaction that you would expect when the Russians realize that they are not personally protected from what is being done in Ukraine,” Giles said of the first signs of the aftermath of the attacks.
But it is far from clear whether this will lead to a wider disruption of Russian support for the war.
On the one hand, Putin’s longtime pretext for war was based on unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine was a threat to Russia’s security and that a so-called “special military operation” in the country was necessary to protect Russia’s interests. Replays of recent attacks can be used to support this argument as the war progresses.
But after almost 18 months of confusion and division, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny that Russia’s military plans are faltering. And Putin’s authority was already undermined as Russia was hit by the aftermath of the war, such as last year’s chaotic military mobilization and the Wagner uprising in June.
In this context, it is easy to see why reminders of the conflict within Russia serve Ukraine’s strategic interests.
For all the expected propaganda impact, sending drones to Russia is not a risk-free move for Kyiv.
The most immediate consideration is retribution. The Kremlin tends to link the attacks on Ukrainian cities to earlier attacks on Russia in a tit-for-tat approach designed to create panic in Ukraine.
But Ukrainians are now more familiar with the threat of Russian aerial bombardments, and there is no evidence that such strikes have affected the resolve of defensive efforts there.
Of great concern is how the West responds to such attacks. A year ago, the prospect of Ukraine sending drones to Russia was unthinkable, given the tacit pact between NATO allies and Kiev that the West would readily support a defensive war but be more wary of any action that would bring NATO into direct conflict with Russia. Russia.
There is no reason to believe that Ukraine used NATO-provided weapons in Russia. This is probably a bridge that they would not cross at the moment, but it clearly gave them more courage to wage war against Russia. For their part, Western leaders seem to be largely ok with this approach.
“The longstanding ISP ban on attacking Russia…was inappropriate and ill-conceived,” Giles said. “Throughout this entire period, he played the Russian game by Russian rules.”
Certain differences remain in how Western leaders view attacks on Russian soil, and the United States is particularly concerned about this. “In general, we do not support terrorist attacks inside Russia,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters late last month, Reuters reported.
But Kyiv’s confidence and growing willingness to undermine Russia’s support for the war likely means such attacks will remain a feature of the conflict.
“It is impossible to predict how this will turn out, but we certainly should expect it to continue, at least at this level, at a steady pace of demonstration of Russian vulnerability,” Giles said.
Josh Pennington of CNN, Maria Knight, Zahra Ulla and Heather Chen contributed to the story.