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New Plot Striking the Heart of Russia Is Nightmare for Putin

In World
April 11, 2024

Ukraine has conducted a series of audacious attacks deep inside Russia against military and economic targets, including at least two drones striking a training facility on Tuesday. Ukraine has used drones to attack Russia before, even striking the Kremlin itself, but Ukraine has never used so many drones in a short space of time and never before reached this deep into Russian territory. For over a month, Ukraine’s one-way attack (OWA) drone program has targeted Russia’s production facilities, oil infrastructure, and some of the airbases that facilitate Russia’s missile strikes.

OWA drones like the ones Ukraine uses force defenders to ask hard questions. The first is how do you preserve an expensive and limited stock of air defense missiles? The (relatively) low cost of the drones means that intercepting every single one at a cost comparable to the drone is often difficult. On the other hand, failing to intercept them can be even more costly. Ukraine’s successful drone strikes since the start of the war have destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of Russian equipment. The other question for defenders is how much air defense can be spared from the intense fighting at the front to protect targets in the rear? Stationing air defense away from the fighting makes it harder for a military to protect its troops from drones and aircraft.

Russian leaders are in the difficult position of trying to determine where air defense is most needed across thousands of miles of territory. The in-land attacks mean that citizens across the country—already feeling the strain of military recruitment drives and a war-time economy—are being confronted by the true cost of the war in a way that Putin had never imagined when he launched a Blitzkrieg assault on Ukraine two years ago.

Not all of Ukraine’s drone attacks are equally damaging to Russia. Of the three recent types of targets, oil infrastructure, airfields, and production facilities, the attacks on Russia’s oil industry caused the most extensive damage. Ukrainian officials told the press that their attacks likely disrupted 10 percent or more of Russia’s refining capacity. Refineries can be repaired of course, but not all facilities struck are back online, and Russia’s oil industry is doubtlessly asking itself how many more attacks Ukraine has in store.

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Ukrainian attacks on airfields, which tend to be better defended, were less successful. On March 20, Ukrainian drones attacked Engels airbase, from which Russia launches some of its deadliest missile attacks on Ukrainian cities. However, there’s no confirmation from Ukraine or Russia that they hit the airfield. On April 5, Ukraine launched a larger attack against three airfields across Russia, including the Morozovsk airfield. Ukrainian officials initially claimed they destroyed as many as six Russian fighters at Morozovsk, which would have been a stunning success. However, later satellite imagery of the airfield didn’t show any destroyed aircraft.

Ukraine’s biggest successes with OWA drones tend to come against sites with limited air defense. On April 2, Ukrainian drones attacked Alabuga, where Russia assembles and manufactures Shahed drones in a large complex of buildings. Footage posted to social media showed a drone—that appeared to be a small plane converted into a drone—fly into the facility. Officials from the facility later confirmed at least one hit to the complex’s dormitory.

The repurposed plane is strange, but not out of character. Ukraine’s OWA drones vary wildly across the different models. Several different firms in Ukraine produce them and some may have been supplied from abroad. On the cheaper end, one kind of Ukrainian drone is constructed from cheap materials like plywood, plastic bottles, and pipes. Most of Ukraine’s drones are economical by military standards due to limited funding and access to advanced components. For instance: nearly all Ukrainian OWA drones use a propeller for propulsion since they are cheaper. On the pricier side, several Ukrainian drones appear to have a jet engine for propulsion. On April 7, Russians near Belgorod spotted Ukrainian drones powered by jet engines heading to attack an unknown target. Jet engines are harder to procure in bulk, but are significantly harder to intercept than their slower cousins.

Ukraine’s attacks obviously have positive impacts in the war effort, but they have mixed reception from some of its international partners. U.S. officials have stated several times that they don’t support or enable Ukrainian strikes into Russia. American rhetoric on drones echoes the longstanding debate for the Biden Administration about providing “long range” weapons out of fear that Russia will perceive it as escalatory. U.S. leaders have often shifted their opinion on what weapons are escalatory, but are seemingly not yet ready to do so in this case. Regardless, it does not appear that the Biden Administration is substantively changing its stance towards Ukraine as a result of the strikes, though further aid is still stymied by uncertainty in Congress.Other partners may be less worried. For instance, the U.K. has promised and delivered different kinds of drones to Ukraine in the past year. One that started as an unarmed target drone with the potential to serve as an effective OWA drone, the Banshee, has been spotted in Ukraine. Between Ukraine’s indigenous drone production and potential support from partners, Ukraine’s strikes into Russia are starting to make Russian defense officials just as concerned about protecting their skies as Ukraine.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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