Russian airfields, one of them just a few hours’ drive from Moscow, have been hit by drones. Do they expose Russia’s defence vulnerabilities?
A war that was supposed to end in 10 days has dragged on for nearly 10 months, with Russia no closer to breaking Ukraine’s spirit or capacity for resistance.
But Ukraine ostensibly is not done throwing up surprises even as Russia appears to be ramping up what it calls a “special military operation”, launched in February this year.
The latest shock for Moscow came when several airfields deep inside Russian territory were hit by drones apparently launched from Ukrainian territory, killing three servicemen.
Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the attacks, in line with its practice of not owning up to any sabotage of Russian infrastructure. But Moscow lost no time accusing Kiev of targeting the strategic Dyagilevo airfield, just a few hours’ drive from the Russian capital and two other military installations.
How crucial the recent strikes are could be gauged from the US denying any hand in the attacks on Russia, prompted by fears of being dragged into the war directly. “We are not enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We are not encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders,” said Ned Price, the US state department spokesman. But Germany defended the Ukrainian attacks.
Experts feel that the suspected Ukrainian drone attacks deep inside Russian territory could further escalate tensions in the conflict.
In an apparent reaction to the drone strikes and other battlefield setbacks in places like Kherson, Russian President Vladimir Putin conceded on Wednesday that the fighting “might be a long process”.
“It’s a worrying development to one extent because we see an escalation here that could potentially draw Russia deeper into the war,” says Andreas Krieg, a defence analyst and a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defence Studies.
“There are efforts now where I am a bit hopeful that Russians are trying to at least secure what they have achieved so far rather than escalating further. Because they know any further escalation will cause more harm and distress,” Krieg tells TRT World.
Mathieu Boulegue, a consulting fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, also believes that the strikes will likely start a new phase of tit-for-tat “revenge strikes” from both sides.
If Ukrainians find “more and more loopholes” to attack Russians deep inside their territory, it could potentially lead to a point where diplomacy cannot help, according to Krieg.
If the drone attacks are by Ukraine, “it significantly changes the operational equations in the war,” says Edward Erickson, a former American military officer and a retired professor of military history at the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.
“Such a capability increases the ‘operational reach’ of Ukrainian military forces by increasing the depth of the battle space,” Erickson tells TRT World.
How did the strikes happen?
“Well, it’s a drone strike, so it works as all strike drones do. What is to be noted is the ability of the Ukrainian command and control to manage to accomplish such strikes in-depth,” Boulegue tells TRT World.
Eugene Chausovsky, a defence expert and a senior analyst at New Lines Institute, believes that the drone attacks are a reflection of Ukraine’s “sustained military support from the West as well as its growing domestic military capabilities, particularly when it comes to drone production.”
While it’s unclear how Ukrainians were able to carry out such attacks, it explicitly signals a Russian failure to defend the country’s airspace. The British defence ministry described the attacks as “the most strategically significant failures of force protection” since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict.
Then, what kind of drones were used to attack Russia?
“According to Russians, those were old Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh (Swift) drones. Ukraine still has some of them,” says Illia Ponomarenko, a defence and security reporter at the Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian newspaper. The Soviet army used Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh drones in the 1970s and 1980s.
But Ponomarenko finds the Russian allegation not very believable. “Yes, theoretically, those old UAVs can cover distances of up to 1,000 km. But the Tu-141 is an obsolete surveillance aircraft that was not supposed to be used as a highly-precise kamikaze drone,” Ponomarenko tells TRT World.
According to the Ukrainian reporter, some experts suggested that Ukraine modified the Tu-141s by installing a warhead and a target-seeking system that would eventually ensure precise strikes at the Engels, Dyagilevo and Kursk airfields.
Krieg also mentioned that possibility. “Theoretically, that’s possible, but we don’t have such information on our hands. Or was it something different, a weapon that we know nothing about yet?” Ponomarenko adds.
According to Krieg, Ukraine has also developed its own drones, and some experts believe that the kamikaze drones used to attack Russian territory might be products of the country’s indigenous weapons programme.
Ukrainian state arms manufacturer Ukroboronprom had announced two months ago that it was about to finalise a drone with a 1,000-km range and 75-kg payload, according to Ulas Pehlivan, a Turkish military expert.
“Others are saying that they might be Chinese drones that have been reverse-engineered by Ukrainians,” Krieg says, adding that Kiev previously used those reverse-engineered kamikaze drones to attack Russian targets in the annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Chausovsky also believes that Ukraine’s continuous work on developing different kinds of drone technology has made the country capable of striking deeper inside Russia in cities like Saratov. “Such Ukraine capabilities are becoming more sophisticated and harder for Russian forces to intercept,” he tells TRT World.
There is also a possibility that the recent attacks on Russian airfields might be the work of pro-Ukraine elements inside Russia, Pehlivan says.
What has also come as a surprise to many is the apparent failure of Russia’s air defence systems, known to be among the bests in the world.
Krieg believes that the Russian military might have been drawn into a sense of complacency, into believing that Ukraine, being forced to dig deep into a defensive war on its territory, would “have no bandwidth left to redraw their attention towards offensive operations”.
Also, considering the huge territory of Russia experts agree that it’s impossible to cover the entire country’s airspace. “There are quite a lot of gaps in their air defence cover,” Krieg says. Russians were almost “naive” to think they could not be hit in places like the Engels airfield, which is 600km from the Ukraine border.
The Russian military has also prepared itself for more conventional air attacks than drone strikes, which happen very fast with the UAVs flying in low altitudes, Krieg says. “It’s challenging to defend against drones unless you know it’s incoming,” he adds.
Other experts also see serious problems in the Russian air defence system.
“The Ukrainian attacks have demonstrated the obvious systemic issues in the Russian air defence and the whole military system," says Ponomarenko. The Russians that once "bragged about their own readiness" to fight back any force now ends up unable to defend its most important airfields hosting nuke-carrying aircraft, adds Ponomarenko.
But the experts also warned that drone strikes have been symbolic at best as they have not made much of a dent in Russia’s military capabilities.
“It should be noted that the drone attacks on the Engels air base did not destroy any Russian aircraft,” Chausovsky says, adding that Russia can launch bombing runs from the airfield on short notice.