December 11, 2023


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Ukraine’s drone strikes against Russia are a message to its people

Ukraine’s drone strikes against Russia are a message to its people

Ukraine has increased the frequency of drone attacks on Russia in recent weeks, a tactic that U.S. officials say is intended to demonstrate to the Ukrainian people that Kiev can still strike back, especially as the counteroffensive against entrenched Russian forces moves slowly.

And just last week, Ukrainian drones near Moscow forced the Kremlin to temporarily shut down airports serving the capital. On Friday, Russia’s defense ministry said Ukraine launched 42 drones over occupied Crimea and fired a missile that was intercepted not far from Moscow, in what could be one of the largest known air attacks on Russian-controlled territory since World War Two. The war began.

Throughout the summer, massive strikes — many carried out by Ukrainian-made drones — hit a building in central Moscow, an international airport, and a hypersonic bomber stationed south of St. Petersburg.

American officials said that although the attacks devastated the female bombers, they did little damage to Russia’s overall military might. No Russians were killed in the airstrikes on Moscow, most of which occurred early in the day, resulting in minimal damage and disruption. The timing may have been for operational security or to avoid Russian air defenses, but it also helped ensure that the attacks did not lead to escalatory attacks by Russia.

Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence service, known as the GUR, did not directly claim responsibility for the attacks, but said strikes on Moscow would continue.

“Russian elites and ordinary Russians now understand that the war is not far off on the territory of Ukraine, which they hate,” Yusov said in an interview last month, as the drone campaign began to intensify. “The war is also in Moscow, and it is already on their lands.”

But US officials say there is a more important audience. If there is a strategic goal, it is to boost the morale of the Ukrainian population and forces, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Ukraine launched a counter-offensive in June against Russian forces occupying its south and east. But unlike last summer’s offensive, during which Ukrainian forces quickly recaptured territory outside Kharkiv, they found it much more difficult to break through entrenched Russian defences, suffering heavy losses in equipment and troops.

Without making tangible progress on the battlefield, Ukraine has stepped up its drone strikes in Crimea, in strikes across the border and deep into Russia.

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Ukrainian officials said they had some hope that the increased attacks would force Moscow to reconsider its more extensive and damaging missile and drone attacks on Ukraine.

But so far, the campaign appears to have boosted support for the war in some parts of Russia, though it may also have helped undermine confidence in the government, at least in elite circles, says Tatyana Stanovaya, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Development. Hello.

“The Ukrainians are doing what they can in their current circumstances,” said Ms. Stanovaya, who based her assessment on reports and conversations with people in Russia. “I don’t think they are trying to have strategic influence.”

Ms. Stanovaya said that in Russia’s border regions, drone strikes appear to have heightened anti-Ukrainian sentiment and may help boost President Vladimir Putin’s standing. “It feeds fears among Russians that they are vulnerable and can be attacked, so they have to support Putin,” she said.

But recently essay on foreign affairs, Ms. Stanovaya said there were signs – at least among wealthy elites – of doubts about Mr. Putin’s power after the Wagner mercenary group’s insurrection. Intensified Ukrainian drone strikes may add to these suspicions.

US intelligence agencies are unsure of the identity of the Ukrainian military agents carrying out the attacks. Although he did not mention the strikes specifically, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the war was returning to Russian territory.

Ukraine used a mix of short- and long-range drones to carry out the strikes, according to US officials. An investigation by The New York Times last month found that three types of long-range drones made in Ukraine were used in attacks on Russia, including the Moscow region. US officials said those drones were launched from Ukraine. The short-range missiles are likely to be operated by pro-Ukrainian sympathizers or agents who have slipped across the border. Officials said some of the drones were manufactured in Ukraine, while others may have been assembled in the field. Either way, the United States believes the attacks were likely ordered and loosely directed by elements of the Ukrainian government.

US officials said the cross-border strikes were not carried out using US equipment.

And perhaps the first major strike on Moscow was stopped by Russian air defenses — in early May, when drones exploded over the Kremlin. In July and August there were several more strikes in and around Moscow.

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Despite the limited impact of the attacks, the US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they expected Ukraine to continue striking Russia because it sent a strong message that Kiev was not only defending its territory but also had some capacity to do the fighting. . to Russia.

Earlier in the war, U.S. officials warned that Ukrainian drone strikes on Moscow could be escalatory, giving Putin an excuse to ramp up Russian attacks on civilian targets. But U.S. officials acknowledged that the attempted Ukrainian strikes so far had been calculated and had not provoked any drastic escalation by Moscow.

Ukrainian officials said the drone strikes posed little risk of escalation because Russia could not intensify its fight given that it was already firing as many missiles and drones as possible into Ukraine.

Analysts said the drone attacks put the Russian propaganda machine into action. Russia’s state-run media sought to soften the impact of Ukrainian drones by emphasizing the military’s ability to shoot them down, in an attempt to send the message that its defenses were strong and that Ukrainian strikes were ineffective.

“The accounts coming out of the Russian media, reflecting how the Kremlin is trying to tell them, refer to downed drones, not drone attacks,” said Jonathan D. Teubner, CEO of FilterLabs, a tracking company. Public sentiment in Russia. They were communicating, ‘We shot down another Ukrainian-Western-American drone, look what we’ve done.'”

Mr. Teubner said his company’s studies of Russian sentiment, which uses computer models to analyze comments on Telegram, social media, local messenger groups and other sources, show that residents are largely sick and disgusted with Moscow’s military leadership, especially after Yevgeny. V. Prigozhin’s attempt to rebel in June.

Teubner said that while the failed rebellion helped increase public suspicion about conscription in Russia, it had not yet prompted ordinary Russians to oppose the war. But the drone strikes, combined with the effects of the insurgency, may have heightened the view among Moscow elites that the Russian government could be more weak than it appears.

American intelligence officials had predicted for weeks that Putin would not allow Prigozhin’s rebellion to go unanswered, in part because doing so would undermine public opinion’s view of the Russian government. US and Western officials have said they believe Putin ordered the destruction of Mr. Prigozhin’s plane. It appears that the incident led to the killing of the mercenary leader.

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For now, U.S. officials say it is important not to exaggerate the impact of drone strikes on Russian public opinion.

Russia has implemented a similar tactic, but with a much larger barrage of attacks with much deadlier consequences. Since last fall, Russia has used Iranian drones and its own cruise missiles to strike residential buildings, power plants, and other civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

US officials said the attacks, which killed dozens, are part of a campaign by Russian forces that hope the strikes will weaken Ukrainians’ will to resist the invasion.

But despite the widespread damage, Russia’s strikes have had a limited impact at best on Ukraine’s military strength and will to fight. Even strikes on the power grid had only temporary effects. An analysis by Microsoft showed that in Ukraine’s largest cities, power was restored after Russian attacks on the electrical grid in an average of six hours. In other areas, electricity was restored within 3.3 days.

Military leaders often justify strategic bombing campaigns against the civilian population as a way to break the enemy’s will to fight. But US military officials said such attacks backfire more often than they succeed. For example, Germany’s attacks on London during World War II emboldened Britain.

“There is very mixed data on whether bombing the civilian population changes their attitude the way you want it to change,” Teubner said. In the lightning attack on London, the British did not turn to Churchill and say: “We don’t want the bombs to fall.” And it had the opposite effect of what the Nazis wanted.

U.S. officials said that some Ukrainian officials understand that just as Russia’s attacks on Kiev would only strengthen Ukraine’s resolve, Ukraine’s attacks on Moscow are unlikely to turn the Russians against war.

Instead, the symbolic strikes aim to reassure Ukrainians who might be concerned about the slow progress of the counterattack, buying time for Zelensky and his forces in the coming weeks.

Christian Tribert And Andrew E. Kramer Contributed to reporting from Kiev and Ukraine Anton Troyanovsky from London.