Why Ukraine is taking the war to Russia with drone attacks

Ukraine has increased its tempo of drone attacks against Moscow, seeking to bring the fight to Russia and ramp up domestic pressure on the Kremlin more than 18 months into the war. 

“Gradually, the war is returning to the territory of Russia,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech earlier this week, after a drone shattered the facade of a Moscow skyscraper. 

Kyiv has not claimed credit for many of the attacks. But it appears to be hoping that targeted strikes will confuse and divide Russia as Ukraine presses its counteroffensive against Moscow’s invading forces. 

“In some ways it’s more effective than what Ukraine can do in the counteroffensive, because over there Ukraine is still fighting in its sovereign territory,” Michal Baranowski, the managing director for German Marshall Fund East, told The Hill. 

“Ukrainians are basically trying to show the Russian elites that look, there is a cost to what Putin is doing … and in many ways that is more of a pressure point than young Russians dying on the front because they don’t care for that.”

The drone strikes inside Moscow, which began in May, have targeted military sites and business districts. Moscow was hit by two drone strikes within the span of two days this week, both of which the Kremlin referred to as terrorist attacks. 

At least one person was injured in the attacks this week, but the strikes have not inflicted significant casualties. However, there are signs that they have spurred panic among Russian oligarchs. 

A late May attack struck in the elitist Moscow district of Rublyovka and sparked fury from Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary leader who led a brief rebellion against Russian President Vladimir Putin in June before reaching a deal to stand down.

Prigozhin, a rare Kremlin ally willing to speak out about the war, slammed Russia at the time for “allowing these drones to fly to Moscow.” 

Ukraine likely is relying on a network of saboteur agents embedded inside Russia to carry out the drone attacks. The agents appear to be using Beaver kamikaze drones, about the size of a small vehicle with a range of at least 600 miles. 

The drone strikes are not just being carried out inside Moscow. Ukraine has also launched them in Russian regions bordering Ukraine, in the Crimean Peninsula, which Putin illegally annexed in 2014, and on Russian ships in the Black Sea.

The stepped-up attacks will likely increase Russian efforts to crack down the shadowy networks responsible for them. 

“There is only one way to deal with such a threat — the methodical identification and detention of Ukrainian agents and their sympathizers,” Russian military blogger Alexander Kots posted on Telegram.

Still, Mathieu Boulègue, a consulting fellow for the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, said history shows it can be hard to dismantle a network of shadow operations.

“We know these elements have been embedded inside Russian territory since day one,” Boulègue said. “They’re doing classic infiltration and subversion operations we’ve seen throughout wars in history.”

There may be another hidden cost to the drone strike tactic: Ukraine risking its moral high ground over Russia, an issue that has creeped up since the attacks began over the late spring.

Boulègue said he worried about critics across the governments of Western allies who are “increasingly starting to look for excuses to push Ukraine into negotiations” with Russia.

Ukraine argues that since Russia conducts frequent missile strikes on Ukrainian territory, responsive attacks on Russian soil are a legitimate act of self-defense.

“Nobody in Moscow, nobody in Crimea, can feel safe until the Russian troops stop killing Ukrainian civilians during this war,” said former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on MSNBC.

But Ukraine does appear to be toeing a fine line on the issue.

A drone strike Tuesday hit a high-rise building in Moscow City, a wealthy business district in the capital of Russia. Videos circulated on social media showed an intense explosion unfolding across the streets of Moscow, leading to crying and panic.

Washington has avoided discussing the attacks inside Russia. Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder on Tuesday declined to speak on the drone attacks when asked.

“Our focus is on providing security assistance to Ukraine to enable them to defend their country inside Ukraine within their sovereign borders,” Ryder said at a briefing.

Boulègue said the moral argument carries little weight because there is “nothing you can do that will stoop lower than what Russia has done” in the war.

“It’s war. They are at war and their existential struggle for the survival of their nation and their people,” he said. “And they are using whatever they deem necessary to try to continue this work.”

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