The World

What Ukraine’s Drone Strike Deep in Russian Territory Means

This is a turning point, especially in showing Russia’s vulnerability.

An explosion on the horizon, against a sunset.
Russian media footage shows the aftermath of an alleged drone attack on an airfield in the Russian region of Kursk, December 6, 2022, a day after drone strikes were reported in two other locations in Russia. Ostorozhno Novosti via REUTERS

Ukraine’s drone strikes on two air bases deep inside Russia mark a new chapter in this war, but their significance—whether they escalate the conflict or alter the war’s course in some other way—is unclear. Much depends on Moscow’s reaction, and Kyiv’s response to that, in the next several days.

For now, it’s worth probing some possibilities, though first let’s lay out the implications of these strikes, regardless of their consequences.

The strikes followed several days of massive Russian air and missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets, mainly power plants, shutting off heat and electricity as Ukraine’s winter is getting brutal. The Russians launched those attacks from the airfields that the Ukrainians subsequently hit.

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In the war up till now, Russia has enjoyed an asymmetric advantage: It has hit Ukrainian targets with planes and missiles launched from Russia, but Ukraine hasn’t fired back, fearing that doing so—that hitting targets inside Russia—would escalate the conflict. With Monday’s drone strikes, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a clear message: From this point on, if you hit us from Russia, I will hit you from Ukraine.

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Zelensky still clung to a moral high road in doing so. He did not retaliate in kind to Russian attacks on civilian targets, but rather struck only the military base from which Russia launched its attacks.

It is also worth emphasizing that Ukraine used Soviet-era drones—not U.S. or NATO weapons—to launch these strikes. President Biden and other Western leaders have resolutely refrained from direct intervention in the war, keeping their troops and pilots away from the fight, even to the point of altering U.S.-supplied rocket launchers so that they’re unable to fire missiles that have the range to strike Russian territory.

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Until now, it was ambiguous as to whether this restriction applied to Ukrainian weapons as well. In some ways, it was an abstract limitation, as the Ukrainians had few, if any, munitions with the range to strike deep inside Russia. However, Ukraine recently modified some of its own Soviet-era drones to travel such long distances. One of the bases they hit was 300 miles from Ukraine’s border. Once that task was done, they fired two of them. And then the next day, they fired one more at another base.

And so Ukraine has declared the ambiguity to be resolved: The West may have barred Ukraine from striking Russian territory with Western weapons, but it did not bar them from doing so with their own weapons.

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In one sense, the Ukrainian air strikes were symbolic. Damaging an air base has very little effect on a war. In April 2017, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, then-President Trump launched 59 cruise missiles against a Syrian air base. Within 24 hours, Syrian pilots took off from the same air base and dropped more bombs (though this time conventional ones) on more civilians.

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Still, the symbolism is potent in one tangible sense: it revealed Russia as even more vulnerable than many—in Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the world—have assumed. The air bases that were hit were homes to some of Russia’s Tupelev-160 and Tupelev-95 strategic nuclear bombers. (Some of these bombers have been used to fire conventionally-armed cruise missiles against Ukraine.) One would think such bases would be particularly secure.

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Just last week, Northrop  Grumman and the U.S. Air Force rolled out their new B-21 bomber, a highly sophisticated stealth aircraft—estimated to cost $750 million each—that is said to be needed because Russian and Chinese air defenses could shoot down our older (though still quite sophisticated) bombers. And yet, a slow, low-flying Soviet-era drone managed to fly 300 miles into Russian territory and damage two Russian bombers on two of its most vital military bases. (Some new questions ought now to be asked about the need for the B-21 as well.)

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Putin couldn’t very well sit back and do nothing in the face of such embarrassment—and he didn’t. Immediately after the strike on two of his bases, he unleashed another wave of attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid. But this wasn’t qualitatively different from what he’d been doing already. If he doesn’t do something else—either dramatically step up the volume of attacks or punish Ukraine in some other way—he will essentially be telling Ukraine that it can go ahead and hit more targets (at least military targets) inside Russia. The risk here is that Russian citizens will then feel something that they haven’t yet felt in the 9 and a half months of this war: personal vulnerability. (One of the air bases Ukraine hit on Monday was just 100 miles away from Moscow.)

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This isn’t the first time that the Ukrainians have damaged targets inside Russia—or on territory that Putin considers to be Russia. Ukraine has launched drone strikes against targets in Crimea, which Putin annexed in 2014. Fighting continues in the four districts that Putin formally (but in no way meaningfully) annexed in September, including Kherson and the Donbas region. There have also been several mysterious fires or explosions at chemical plants and other facilities inside Russia; Ukrainian saboteurs are thought to be responsible.

Still, a direct, undeniable air strike against a target on indisputably Russian territory—that crosses a line. The question is whether Putin considers it a red line—and, if so, what he does about it. He may do nothing (beyond doing more of what he’s been doing already). He may do something drastic, though it’s hard to say just what that might be. Attacking, say, a weapons depot or training site in Poland seems unlikely; that would be an attack on a NATO member, which could prompt direct NATO involvement in the war, which would be to Russia’s severe disadvantage. Escalating to chemical or nuclear weapons seems absurdly disproportionate as well.

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Putin may just have to eat it; he may have to accept that Russia itself has now been drawn into his war. Will he pay a price for that, politically? Will he step up the war, against all military reason, to avoid paying a price? Zelensky may have crossed the line and fired a drone into Russia, at least in part, to force Putin into this position—either of having to accept Russia’s military vulnerability (which could trigger Putin’s own political vulnerability) or having to escalate the war (which could bring the U.S. and NATO to engage in it more directly).

Whatever happens, the calculations of war and peace in Ukraine just got at least a little bit more complicated.

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