The United States will no longer forbid Ukraine from executing drone strikes in Russian territory. The Ukrainian military has already used unmanned aircraft to attack Russian airbases, and Washington has now given Kyiv its approval to hit Russia inside its own borders more extensively. The United States had previously ruled against Ukrainian strikes in Russia for fear of escalating the war.
More Nuclear Saber-Rattling
Russian President Vladimir Putin is not happy with the new policy and has threatened to respond with pre-emptive nuclear strikes. One Russian higher-up was quoted in the Daily Mail saying that, “This is playing with fire, risking full-scale war which could easily go nuclear.”
Russia continues to use Iranian-made Shahed-136 loitering munitions against Ukrainian power and water infrastructure, among other civilian targets. Ukraine shoots down many of the kamikaze drones, but they do a lot of damage, leading for example to extensive power outages in Odesa. Russia has also destroyed the eastern city of Bakhmut.
In response, Ukraine used converted Cold War-era Tu-141 photo reconnaissance drones to bomb air bases in Engels and Dyagilevo, where they killed at least three Russian personnel and damaged two Tu-95 bombers on Dec. 5. This was in effect an attack on Russia’s nuclear triad, since the bombers are nuclear-capable.
Nowhere Is Safe for Russia
Russia is taking air defenses more seriously after the strikes, and they are readying bomb shelters in Moscow. Ukraine has asked for long-range ATACMS guided missiles from the United States for its HIMARS rocket launchers to reach farther into Russia. The Pentagon has so far resisted those requests. An unnamed Ukrainian defense official told the Financial Times that soon Russia will have “no safe zones,” and that Ukraine could reach any target it wanted to hit in the country.
There have been other explosions in Russia that Ukraine has not taken credit for – in Kursk, Ryazan, and Saratov. Ryazan is around 150 miles southeast of Moscow, and the Saratov airbase is suspected of launching cruise missiles to attack Ukraine. These explosions raise the question of whether Moscow might be targeted.
Ukrainian strikes inside Russia could force the military’s higher command to reposition surface-to-air missile systems closer to Russian airbases. With the aerial bombardment, Ukraine has also achieved surprise and propaganda effects against Russia.
There is a psychological impact to showing that Russia is vulnerable inside its own borders.
Would Bombing from Manned Airplanes Be Next?
It is not clear whether Ukraine has the air assets to continue the drone assault against Russia.
They could use the drones as decoys and attack with conventional aircraft, although these would be susceptible to Russian SAMs such as the S-300. The drones fly slower and lower than manned airplanes, and this could explain their initial success against Russian air defenses. Russia is likely to adjust its SAMs to better protect against armed drones.
Air attacks against Russian targets are not likely to win the war, but they could influence Russian public opinion against it.
Until now, the front lines have been seen as a far-off abstraction, but if ordinary Russians in Moscow hear air-raid sirens and must take cover in a shelter, some may decide this war is a losing proposition.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.