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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Can Russia Terror Bomb Its Way to Victory in Ukraine?

Tu-160 Bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia has decided to try to win its war with Ukraine by resorting to terror bombing. What chances does the campaign have for success?

An Extraordinarily Brief History of Strategic Bombing

World War I saw the first strategic bombing campaigns, with Germany using Zeppelins and heavy, long-range aircraft to inflict damage primarily upon British cities. The campaign was not extensive enough to cause serious damage to British industry, but it did kill a fair number of civilians and caused panic, if not demoralization, on the British home front. Germany made another half-hearted attempt at a strategic bombing campaign in the first year of World War II, but this rapidly gave way to the Combined Bomber Offensive, the British and American effort to destroy German industry and morale.

A similar campaign against Japan ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs. The US undertook strategic bombing campaigns in both the Korean and Vietnam wars to little substantial military effect. Apart from the atomic attacks on Japan none of these campaigns are regarded as having been decisive to winning a war, but almost all of them killed a lot of people and destroyed a lot of property.

Enola Gay

Enola Gay B-29. Image was taken on October 1, 2022. Image Credit:

Nature of Damage

Conceptually, a strategic bombing campaign can strike a variety of different kinds of targets. During the Combined Bomber Offensive of World War II the United States focused on attacking Germany’s industrial capacity, while the British concentrated on breaking the morale of the German population, although in practice there was relatively little difference between the campaigns due to the inaccuracy of American bombing.

The campaign against Japan technically targeted industry but mostly killed civilians. The campaigns against North Korea and Vietnam mostly targeted infrastructure and industry , although the Korean campaign in particular caused substantial collateral damage to civilian agriculture.

The Russian campaign has generally avoided direct attacks against the civilian populace in favor of dual-use civilian-military targets. Early in the war, Russia targeted some Ukrainian industry, especially in the defense sector, but Russia likely judged the strategic impact of such attacks limited because of how much military equipment Kyiv imports from the West.

Now, Russia is focusing its attention on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, attacking power generation and transfer stations. Ukrainian officials expect that attacks against water distribution facilities may come next.

Nature of the Russian Campaign in Ukraine

Strategic bombing campaigns are often as costly to the initiator as they are to the victim. While we will never have a full accounting, the cost of conducting the Combined Bomber Offensive was immense for the Western Allies. It involved flying large, expensive four-engine bombers into the teeth of German air defenses, which were relatively inexpensive. Germany could rely on smaller, cheaper single-engine fighters to attack the bombers, and also enjoyed the advantage of fighting most of the battles over their own territory, meaning that damaged aircraft could be repaired and pilots rescued.

Russia has largely avoided using expensive fixed-wing aircraft to attack well-defended Ukrainian strategic targets. Rather, the Russian campaign has mostly used cruise missiles and long-range drones to target Ukrainian infrastructure. These drones and missiles are accurate enough to hit small targets, and appear to have caused extensive damage. The acquisition of additional ballistic missiles (and the retooling of Russian industry to produce drones) means that Russia will continue to be able to destroy targets deep in Ukrainian territory.

But the Ukrainians are certainly not helpless. The transfer of extensive anti-aircraft defenses to Ukraine began as soon as Russia invaded, and has continued to this day. However, the economics of offense and defense may not favor Ukraine. Many of the missiles that Ukraine is using against Russian drones and missiles are more expensive than their targets. Of course, Ukraine isn’t really paying for many of these capabilities, as Western countries are generally footing the bill.

Still, Ukraine can’t rely on the hope that the Russians will run out of money to launch additional drones and missiles.

And in some ways, that Russian strategy plays directly into the strengths of the pro-Ukraine coalition. Germany may be reluctant (or even unable) to dispatch lethal military equipment that would help Ukraine defeat Russia’s armies. Still, it is willing and able to send engineers and machine parts to Ukraine to repair electricity transfer stations. Moreover, as the Russian campaign seems to serve little military purpose beyond inflicting misery upon civilians, it won’t help the Russian public relations campaign in Europe.

Likely Impact on Ukraine 

The Russian strategic campaign is not likely to succeed in either toppling the Ukrainian government or in forcing Kyiv to capitulate. If Ukrainian morale fell because of this bombing campaign, it would become a huge outlier in the history of strategic air campaigns. Robert Pape (author of Bombing to Win, an account of the history of strategic bombing) is deeply skeptical about the effectiveness of Russian efforts. Moscow may believe too much of its own propaganda about the weakness and decadence of the West and, by extension, Ukraine.

But the people Russia is trying to coerce are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the people who survived the Holodomor and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. It is not likely that the weather will force them to knuckle under and give up on their resistance to Russia’s invasion. But Russia can undoubtedly make life unpleasant for Ukrainians, especially in the face of what could be a dreadful winter.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. June

    November 14, 2022 at 10:44 pm

    Unfortunately, winter will be harsh on poorly maintained Russian equipment and poorly equipped Russian soldiers. On the other hand, modern military equipment is often tested under (-55C) and is guaranteed to operate under very severe conditions. Ukraine is not Siberia. No place in Ukraine can reach this low temperature. This winter will be an excellent opportunity for Ukraine to gain more territory.

  2. 403Forbidden

    November 15, 2022 at 12:09 am

    Russia now must decide to kill two birds with one stone – use nukes against the ukros and, at sane time, throw down the gauntlet for Biden, who’s brain is so fossilized he just called Cambodia “Colombia.”

    Biden the day when told Russian nukes were obliterating his foot soldiers in kyiv, will bang his balls & flap his sardine up and down while saying over and over, “Colombia, my mama !” “My mama, my mama !” “Kumbaya, my Lord !” ” Kumbaya !”

  3. Willlongfield

    November 15, 2022 at 5:07 am

    “Germany made another half-hearted attempt at a strategic bombing campaign in the first year of World War II”

    The blitz was not halfhearted! They pounded much of the Wast End to rubble and killed 60k people.

    As for the Battle of Britain, it was ferocious and titanic. The Germans threw everything they had at the British, who gave it back to them just as hard. In the end Germany withdrew, badly mauled, but much of Britain had been bombed.

    Germany got it back good and hard in 1943-1945 however….

  4. Richard Hershberger

    November 15, 2022 at 7:42 am

    I commend H. G. Wells’s 1908 novel The War in the Air for the early ideology of strategic bombing, with derigibles an unstoppable offensive weapon that completely overturn the world order. It isn’t a good novel, but it is a fascinating period piece.

  5. Gary Jacobs

    November 15, 2022 at 9:19 am

    This author says “The Russian campaign has generally avoided direct attacks against the civilian populace in favor of dual-use civilian-military targets.”

    What war are you watching?

    In very many cities the Russians are bombing apartment buildings for fun. Nikopol, Dnipro, Mykolaiv, and on and on. They may be using their long range weapons on energy infrastructure and the like because they dont have enough to bomb enough apartment buidings in Kyiv to satisfy their barbarity… but in Nikopol where regular Russian MLRS is in range across the reservoir, they shell the city all the time.

    In Mykolaiv the Russians were using S300 anti aircraft missiles in land attack mode because they have so many of them, and because each missile is between 3000-4000lbs depending on which variant. They are not at all a precise land attack weapon unless you just aim for a city and are happy if civilians are killed. That’s Russia in a nutshell – Hamas and Hezbollah with bigger weapons.

    And the video Wagner put out executing a prisoner with a sledgehammer is basically an ISIS murder-porn video to hype up the blood lust of Russia’s ultra nationalists. I’m sure the Putanista trolls like 403forgotten got off on it considering how often he calls to nuke Ukraine. That’s purely insane. Take the L and go home and fix your own country. Clearly plenty of problems there..

    But besides the targeting of civilians with missiles, how about the Russian’s use of torture chambers, systematic rape, mass graves, and other atrocities they leave in their wake in every city they occupy?

    This was an otherwise decent article, but Russian behavior towards civilians has been despicable in many different ways. It has a tendency to backfire on the Russians as it keeps the Ukrainians motivated to fight against the Russians that much more. The Russians have quite a bit more losing to do on the battlefield, and for the sake of the civilians left in the areas the occupy that losing cant happen soon enough.

    Have a liberating day.

  6. YS

    November 15, 2022 at 1:27 pm

    For “torture chambers, systematic rape, mass graves, and other atrocities” there’s plenty of evidence of those being in use by UA (nazi battalions etc) as well as by RU (FSB, PMCs etc). For instance, look at POW exchange videos and compare state of the people.

    Regarding phase of the conflict:

    1. initial blunders
    2. focus shift to Donbass
    3. UAF advances using new weapons and 10:1 force advantage
    4. RU is on defensive expecting 300k new troops – will probably not change much, we’ll see.

    Keep in mind, people in Donbass were the only part of the conflict for the last 8 years – now they got some help.
    Random shelling of Donetsk (note: not precision strikes targeting military) is common and takes toll of few dozen casualties every day.

    “assume nothing question everything”

  7. Rick

    November 15, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    403, Your comments are becoming more desperate as Ukraine kicks your ass. Use nukes after Xi’s comments at your own peril. You are a very stupid person.

  8. Jim

    November 15, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    Terror bombing…

    For eight years, Ukraine has engaged in terror bombing of the eastern breakaway regions of Ukraine (from their perspective).

    Pure, indiscriminate shelling and small “safari” raids into the Donbus with over 10,000 deaths primarily of Ukrainians of Russian decent.

    I suppose some level of “terror” has existed as long as Man has engaged in War…

    This concern for Russian terror bombing… seems like a an attempted redux of the “dirty bomb” affair.

    Fortunately that affair fizzled out.

    So will this.

  9. Gary Jacobs

    November 15, 2022 at 3:07 pm


    You should explore other sources besides Putinistas. Your comments are outlandish. The idea that Ukraine was terror bombing the Donbas is absurd.

    As well, the leader of the Russian backed separatists in 2014, Igor Girkin, is a lunatic war criminal of the most disgusting kind.

    As well, “Ukrainians of Russian decent” is also absurd. They were largely Russified Ukrainians…forced to speak Russian because Russian authorities did not allow Ukrainian to be spoken. In some cases Russians deported Ukrainians to Siberia and replaced them with Russians.

    Whether its you blaming Ukraine for Russia’s attempted coup in 2014, or you completely ignoring their attempted coup in 2004 [not to mention poisoning a Ukrainian presidential candidate], and so very much more… you continue to display an inability to understand the real context of what is going on over there, and you cling to fringe faux information that will undermine Ukraine and support Russian talking points.

    I could go on for days like this, but for now I digress.

  10. Jim

    November 15, 2022 at 4:33 pm

    Not surprised by how Maximalists respond.

    Deny everything… and even try to pass off the “Russia was behind the 2014 coup.”

    Nobody believes that.

    A hybrid war is a license to delve into propaganda.

    Maximalists are in a constant battle to re-write history and other forms of self-confirming information war… a self-licking ice cream cone… machine.

  11. Tom Aranas

    November 15, 2022 at 9:04 pm


    The under reported story is refugees. Four to five million more may descend on Germany joining the over one million already burdening that country. Despite pollyannish reporting of solidarity, the German people are not happy. The are even more irate at the USA who suffer little consequences with a continuing conflict.

    We all know Putin is never backing down. However, nobody dare admits it. He is a psychopath who will destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure. Expect 5 million more refugees this winter and they won’t be stopping in Poland.

  12. Reality

    November 15, 2022 at 10:01 pm

    To hell with any and all Russian apologists and sympathizers. Russia invaded a sovereign nation that kindly said, “no thank you” to Russia empire almost 30 years ago.

    Get out of Ukraine. Period, point blank, end of story. Not your land, not your people.

  13. Bertram

    November 16, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    Provide Ukraine the means to begin destroying targets within Russia. Bridges, rail lines, power stations. That would all be a good start to help bring Russia back to reality.

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