Russia has fired countless missiles and bombs at Ukraine in a war of aggression not seen since the last days of World War II. However, as Kyiv has turned the tide in the last few months and gone on the offensive, it seems Ukraine could strike back and target Russia itself. Is that a good idea?
Western arms providers have prohibited Ukraine from launching missile attacks into Russia, in part because of the fear of direct retaliation against NATO, but primarily because it could trigger Russian nationalism and increase political support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign.
Ukrainian bombardment of Russian civilians would also be wasteful, as the history of Hitler’s vengeance weapons have demonstrated that scarce resources are more usefully expended against military targets which contribute to ultimate battlefield victory.
However, a limited and politically calibrated missile and drone operation against Russian military targets, even with the externality of occasional collateral injury to non-combatants, will provoke beneficially irrational but containable responses from the Kremlin.
Thus far in the war, Ukraine’s military leadership has wisely downplayed claims of success in its bombardment strikes against Russian targets. As early as February 25, 2022, two Tochka-U short-range ballistic missiles were fired at Russia’s Millerovo air base near Rostov-on-the-Don. On March 23-24, a BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher attacked unknown objectives in Belgorod Oblast. In terms of drone strikes, two Bayraktars were shot down in Bryanks Oblast on April 25, a suicide drone struck the Novoshakhtinsk oil refinery in Rostov Oblast on June 22, and, another attacked an oil depot in Oryol Oblast on November 16.
Excluded from this list are two dozen cross-border artillery strikes, assorted false flag attacks that are most likely errant Russian missiles, and those events denied by Ukraine, including an alleged helicopter attack against a fuel depot in Belgorod on April 1, and a Russian claim of having shot down three Tochka U missiles intercepted over Belgorod on July 3.
The Institute for the Study of War warned that Moscow was preparing for a false flag attack on Russian civilians, as President Vladimir Putin is alleged to have a history of doing, but there are reasons this is unlikely.
First, Russia has been careful not to provoke cross-border artillery exchanges with Ukraine along frontiers Kyiv has secured, such as near Kharkiv, Sumy, or Hlukhiv, because it would expose the Kremlin’s lack of defensive preparation for its exposed infrastructure.
Second, the high-rate of missile expenditures indicates that Putin is seeking to demonstrate a “shock-and-awe” effect for his domestic Russian television audience, and not actually probing for a tit-for-tat exchange with Ukrainian artillery.
Third, even a handful of false flag attacks would be lost amid the constant noise of attacks blamed on Ukraine that are actually misfired Russian ordnance plunging onto Russian dwellings.
Moscow is also not in a position to retaliate against a Ukrainian missile attack on a Russian military target. The magnitude of Russia’s rocket barrages against Ukrainian civilians are already at their peak, limited by the number of Tu-95 bombers and submarine tubes that need time to be re-loaded every three days. A dramatic Russian escalation is coming anyway, likely in the form of a winter offensive using some of the 300,000 mobilized soldiers, or a summer offensive in 2023 after two more mobilization cohorts are inducted, bringing the army to a million. Failing those two efforts, Moscow may escalate to chemical or tactical nuclear weapons to break the deadlock. Consequently, the present is an opportune moment for Kyiv to normalize missile attacks on Russia.
Ukraine was restricted from conducting strikes into Russia with any of the long-range rockets systems loaned from its democratic allies (20 Himars and 10 British and German M270 MLRS), or its own weapons with similar range profiles, such as eighty-one 70 km range BM-30 Smerch (12-tubed 300mm rockets), or its ninety to 500 70 km range Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) missiles. This leaves Ukraine with 2 options: sixty 300 km range and 150 kg warhead Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey, or ten Su-24 bombers, which have a 750 km (hi-lo-lo) radius, that would put them in range of the Russian cities of Smolensk, Kaluga, Voronezh, and Krasnodar. Although four have been lost in combat, Ukraine can cannibalize another 230 airframes for parts. This seemingly miniscule arsenal can have a disproportionate impact on Russian morale if employed with the benefits of surprise and deception.
Attacking military targets inside Russia brings three crucial advantages. First, it undermines Putin’s political invincibility by exposing his regime’s ineptitude at safeguarding Russia’s security. It thereby, second, provokes Putin to continue his attacks on civilians rather than on Ukraine’s critical military infrastructure. This is a hard-hearted stratagem, but is the key to victory for Kyiv. Third, it conjures a potent aerial threat that will ensure Russia’s air force keeps its 8,000 S-300 surface-to-air missiles in reserve, rather than allowing them to be converted into instruments of city bombardment once Russia runs out of rockets, as it is estimated to by January of 2023.
Putin has consistently oversold his regime’s effectiveness at protecting individual Russian citizens, and his contention that he is fighting for Russia’s future. Especially in authoritarian regimes that are led by former counter-intelligence practionners, such as the USSR’s Joseph Stalin and Yuri Andropov, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Russia’s Putin, there is an obsessive prioritization of regime security over that of the state. Putin’s rule is personalistic, as evinced by the absence of an appointed successor, so he has a small inner circle of sycophantically loyal advisors, an intermediate circle he rules through common interest or fear, and a propagandized persona for the general population. They are consequently ineffectual at delegation and information sharing outside of their closed entourage, which is shrunk by paranoia-induced eliminations and aging. This is why domestic economic development and foreign policies appear so reactive, ad hoc, and poorly conceived.
Putin’s regimes is instrumentally contractual with Russian citizens, offering explicit material payoffs and promises of stability, in exchange for acquiescence, rendering their support for the regime far more fragile than in democracies. Their suffering from economic sanctions and burden of reserve mobilization has violated that social pact. A Ukrainian bombing attack deep within Russia would profoundly shatter that sense of invulnerability brought about by decades of strategic nuclear deterrence. Putin also bases his support on being recognized as the lynchpin of Russian domestic stability, by averting ethnic conflict and territorial disintegration. The erosion of Putin’s popularity is manifest in the apparent paradox of Russian citizens willing to mobilize for war, yet vocally dissatisfied by the government’s negligent failure to prepare for and prosecute it diligently.
Authoritarian regimes are easily provoked into engaging in symbolic military acts, because these governments become entrapped by their own propaganda, upon which they base their legitimacy.
Even in the conditions of wartime censorship, democratic governments are less susceptible to this distortion. Despite extreme privation and losses of 1.4 million young men and women, France prevailed over Wilhelmine Germany during the First World War. France even suffered a widespread army mutiny in 1917, which affected sixty percent of its divisions, but their demands were for reforms to better prosecute the war, not to end it. In contrast, in 1918, Germany’s authoritarian military administration led by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff, collapsed, because they persistently misled the German legislature about the prospects of victory, until they were no longer credible.
A Ukrainian airstrike that successfully penetrates Russian air defenses, would be a direct challenge to Putin’s naïve assumption of security against air raids. The shock would, first, provoke Russia to misdirect resources and at best marginally intensify retaliation against civilian targets in Ukraine, and second, would cause a significant diversion of resources into air defense.
It is well known that aerial bombardment of a civilian population has never independently led to the capitulation of an opponent, and that it is much more wasteful than an equivalent air warfare effort concentrated toward helping the army and navy achieve a battlefield victory. Iran ended its conflicts with Iraq in 1988, not because of the over million residents who fled Tehran to escape the barrage of Iraqi SCUD missiles, but because of Iraq’s battlefield victory at the Al Faw Peninsula.
Authoritarian regimes, because of their poor handling of information, often mirror-image their opponents, meaning that they believe their adversaries suffer from the same fatal weakness of fickle public support. Adolf Hitler, for example, feared the low resolve of the German people, which he blamed for the defeat of Germany in the First World War, so he only authorized full mobilization after the July 20th 1944 assassination attempt on his life. Authoritarian governments usually believe that smaller countries can be compelled to cooperate through intimidation, because they conduct their foreign policy like their domestic politics: through coercion. Despite severe damage to Ukraine’s electrical and water purification infrastructure, Russia expended the majority of its non-strategic missiles and inflicted less than 1,000 Ukrainian fatalities, all the while failing to stop Ukraine’s advances on the ground. Kyiv’s exposure of its civilian population to loss and suffering is tragic, but aiming to achieve military victory is the strategy that will ultimately save the most lives.
Authoritarian leaders are particularly wary of the capriciousness of their people when they are displaced by bombing. During the Second World War, the Nazi Party estimated as early as the summer of 1940 that the humiliation of British bombing, though marginally damaging to industry, was affecting its legitimacy by its demonstration of Berlin’s impotence. As the war progressed, the Anglo-American bombing campaign’s principal contribution to victory was not only in destroyed factories, but in the critically bad decision by Berlin to concentrate its air force to defend the skies over Germany, rather than assist German armies on the battlefield. This same exploitable vulnerability of authoritarian regimes informed the U.S. decision to conduct its Doolittle bomber raid on Imperial Japan in April 1942. In response, the Japanese Navy retaliated with a wasteful Japanese attack on the Alaskan Islands of Attu and Kiska, diverting two aircraft carriers (Junyo and Ryujo) that could have averted the decisive Japanese defeat at Midway in June of 1942. This same diversionary benefit was exploited by the Israeli air force in the 1973 October War against Syria. Unable to strike at Syria’s ports, the Israelis conducted an extensive series of strikes on political and economic targets within Damascus, provoking Syrian President Hafez Assad to concentrate air defenses in his capital, thereby exposing military targets and ports in the rest of Syria, to attack.
Kyiv can subtly exploit the critical weakness of Moscow’s obsession with regime survival and its inherent scepticism of the strength of Russian support, with carefully considered airstrikes within Russia’s interior. Even a few raids by Ukraine’s handful of Su-24 bombers and drones, would oblige Putin to keep in reserve his 8,000 S-300 air defense rockets, rather than have them repurposed to strike civilian and military targets in Ukraine.
Despite being subject to aggressive invasion and depraved war crimes, Kyiv has wisely resisted the political temptation of vengefully retaliating against non-combatants in Russia. The liberalization of Russia is less than a generation away, as it was for Ukraine before 2014. When the war ends, as they all do, Kyiv will still have Russia as a neighbor, Russians as its citizens, and it will inherit a political conscience which will define its new identity. Kyiv must portray the conflict as one against the Putin regime, even if the Russian people are complicit, as a way to open up political space for a Russian opposition or peace party.
Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University (Montreal), former army engineer officer, and has written extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted field research for over ten years. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.