Can long-range strikes help win the war for Ukraine?
Having weathered multiple massive barrages of missiles and drones from Russia, Ukraine is now beginning to respond in kind.
While the strikes are satisfying to Ukraine and annoying to Russia, much depends on how Ukraine uses these weapons and how many strike vehicles Ukrainian industry can build.
Depends on how it’s used…
Estimates put the number of drone attacks on Russia at over one hundred and fifty. The bulk of Ukrainian drone attacks have been conducted against military targets in districts key to the networks of logistics that support Russian forces in the field. Russian airfields have also come under attack, resulting in the destruction of several aircraft. More controversially, Ukraine has launched drone attacks against civilian and government targets in Moscow, demonstrating to Russia’s largely indifferent population that the war can reach them, too. In short, Ukraine is using drones to indicate to Russia that it cannot confine the effects of the war to Ukrainian territory.
Depends on how many they have…
Ukraine’s Western backers have put limits on Kyiv’s ability to launch long-range strikes against Russian territory. American ATACMS can hit targets at up to 195 miles, but the US has not offered them to Ukraine because of stockpile issues and escalation concerns. The transfer of Storm Shadow missiles and some hints that the US may decide to deliver ATACMS after all indicate that concerns over escalation have begun to wane.
Ukraine has struggled to maximize the capacity of its defense industrial base, but much of its recent progress has focused on the development of long-range strike options. Building the kinds of drones that Russia has used to hit Ukrainian targets is well within the capabilities of Ukrainian industry, and given the gap in Western aid it makes sense for Kyiv to build these weapons itself. Reportedly, Ukraine has also adapted Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles for land-attack.
Depends on what effects they hope to obtain…
The wisdom of committing resources to long-range strike depends on the effects that the Ukrainians hope to obtain. The attacks on Russian military targets serve an obvious purpose, and can be judged on a straightforward cost-benefit calculus. The impact on Russian air defense policy is harder to measure, but if Russia withdraws some of its air defense assets from the front in order to protect Moscow that must be regarded as a win for the Ukrainians.
With respect to the attacks on urban areas, history offers plenty of examples of pinprick attacks against enemy capitals, launched for primarily political reasons. These aren’t the kinds of devastating attacks (like Operation Gomorrah or the Tokyo Fire Raid) that destroy industry, unhouse workers, and leave infrastructure in ruins. Rather, these are limited raids oriented around specific political goals. The Doolittle Raid, for example, inflicted trivial real damage, but it unsettled Japanese leadership and stoked morale on the American homefront.
Attacks of this kind can be deadly on a personal basis and annoying from a societal perspective, but they rarely have the kinds of grand political impact that their planners seem to expect. People under bombardment rarely force their governments to surrender; they get depressed, they die, but they don’t turn to anti-government political activism, in no small part because they blame the people launching the bombs and missiles more than they blame their own leaders for their misfortune. Russians injured or unhoused by such attacks are more likely to blame Zelenskyy for their misfortune than Putin.
But much of the political purpose of attacking Moscow is not to demoralize Russians or to inflict damage on the Russian economy. Rather, it is to indicate to Ukrainians that their government is willing and able to take the fight to the Russians. As the grinding Ukrainian counter-offensive continues to make slow progress, strikes deep into Russia allow Ukrainians to believe that the Russian homefront is beginning to feel the cost of the war. The Zelenskyy government must do Something to hurt Russia, the thinking goes, and launching missiles and drones at Russian targets is that Something.
The Ukraine War Goes Long Distance…
Ukraine didn’t start the long-range war. The large-scale Russian precision attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure did have an economic effect and at one point convinced Ukrainian authorities to contemplate the evacuation of Kyiv, but those attacks came at enormous costs to the Russians in terms of available missiles.
Obviously, it’s less expensive to send a drone than a missile (much less the kind of 4-engine bombers that leaders used to send such messages in World War II), but the Ukrainians must nevertheless carefully assess how much to invest in strike capabilities as opposed to other war priorities.
Moreover, Kyiv must take great care with respect to targeting, because strikes on civilian targets also run the risk of undermining Western support for Ukraine’s war effort.
Nevertheless, it seems that Russia did not account for the possibility that it might find itself in a long-range strike competition against Ukraine, another deadly miscalculation by the Putin regime.
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), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). 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.
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