600 Miles To Moscow? Attack? Defend? What Ukraine’s Drone Strikes In Russia Really Mean
As they’ve done for the past year, Ukrainians have spent the past three days studying maps and calculating distances. But there's a difference now: The maps are of Russia.
The unprecedented drone attacks this week of airfields deep inside Russian territory open a new phase in the war that is both tactical and symbolic. Though still without official confirmation from Kyiv, nobody doubts that the Ukrainian military executed the three strikes between Monday and Tuesday hundreds of kilometers inside Russia, which killed three and injured at least nine, including the strategic military air base of Engels.
Alexander Kovalenko, a Ukrainian military and political observer of the Information Resistance group, writes on his Telegram channel: "International war observers have seen that regardless of what struck the Russian airfields, it bypassed the lauded Russian air defense system and accomplished the task," he said. "They see not only that the supposed No. 2 military in the world not only drags old T-62 tanks and D-1 howitzers into the combat zone in Ukraine, but that it essentially has no air defense."
The weapons used are believed to be Soviet-era Strizhs, which were originally reconnaissance drones with a maximum range of about 600 kilometers, which accounted for the distance they had to return to reach original base with the information collected. But reimagined and reconfigured as kamikaze drones means they don’t have to return, effectively doubling their range.Some Ukrainian commentators have in fact begun calculating where else such weapons could reach: Sevastopol, in Crimea? Or even Moscow?
Russia's air advantage
Still, military experts say it’s not about dreaming about the Kremlin in flames. The breakthrough this week is above all strategic. It’s about the airbases, explained Mykhailo Samus of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, in an interview with Radio Liberty, Ukrainian edition. "Engels remained such a unique airfield. And just the strike on this airfield is an extraordinary event in the history of Russia,” Samus said. “This story will continue, and I hope that there will be less and less strategic aviation in Russia. If we destroy this complex, they will have a problem with basing strategic aviation. Especially in terms of the European part (of Russia)."
Indeed, since the beginning of the war, the air advantage has been Russia's main trump card in the war with Ukraine. Kyiv’s Western allies made it clear right away that a No-Fly-Zone was off the table, as were official deliveries of long-range missiles that could take out Russia’s air arsenal. Though Ukraine was especially vulnerable to Russia’s air superiority, Western assistance to reverse that was considered a major risk of escalating the war.
And Ukrainians have continued to face ever deeper and wider consequences of Russia’s air superiority, especially over the past two months with a constant barrage of air and missile attacks on the civilian infrastructure across the country. This in fact may have prompted Kyiv to activate the response inside Russian territory.
However, the point is not only that the old modified Soviet Strizh could fly about 700 kilometers of Russian airspace, but that they also managed to hit a strategic facility like Engels, where there were bombers Tu-95MS and Tu-160. These aircraft are part of the nuclear triad of the Russian Federation, which, according to the Kremlin, are supposed to carry nuclear warheads to strike Washington and other vital targets in the U.S. and Europe in case of a nuclear war.
Satellite imagery of Engels air base
Will the U.S. help Ukraine attack Russia?
Still, truth be told, neither the Russian air defense system nor the defense around the strategic object worked. The strikes were not very effective; so far, all that is known is that nine people were injured, three died, and a tanker truck and two aircraft were damaged. These first attempts to hit military targets inside Russia is, above all, a test of Ukrainian intelligence and air force capabilities.
But no less important than the technical execution was that it was a “trial balloon” of sorts to gauge the reaction of Kyiv’s Western partners.
Both Washington and Europe still make it clear they don’t want the war to spillover or escalate. And yet…. Unpacking responses from both U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shows that something has changed.
Blinken said: “We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia.” The careful language, without any hint of condemnation, likely indicates that Washington is not displeased with Ukraine’s actions.
Lloyd was also coy, answering a reporter Tuesday. “So, your question was: Is the U.S. working to prevent Ukraine from developing its own long-range strike capability? The short answer is no, we’re absolutely not doing that.”
It's an “absolute” double negative that speaks volumes about what Ukraine and its allies could be planning next.