Ukrainian drone strikes are bringing the war home to Russia. What does it mean for the conflict? | CNN (2023)

London CNN

Ukrainian drone strikes taking place inside Russia once seemed an unthinkable prospect. But such attacks have become an increasingly common feature of Moscow’s war – with an emboldened Kyiv warning that more will come.

A string of drone strikes have peppered Russian cities including Moscow throughout the summer. Friday saw one of the most dramatic yet – sea drones targeted a major Russian port hundreds of miles from Ukrainian-held territory, leaving a warship listing.

They have distracted from a Ukrainian counteroffensive that is yet to produce tangible results on the battlefield, and brought the war home to Russia.

But they are not without risk for Kyiv, which is attempting to seize the front foot in the war while maintaining relations with Western nations wary of any hint of escalation.

Here’s what you need to know.

A series of strikes

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned last week that war is “gradually returning” to Russia, after the latest in a series of drone attacks to take place inside the country that Moscow has pinned on Kyiv.

Last weekend’s incidents saw buildings in Moscow targeted by drones. On Tuesday, a drone struck the same skyscraper in Moscow that was hit on Sunday.

It followed two similar attempted attacks that were reported by Russian officials earlier in July, and numerous such incidents in June. In May, an apparent drone attack above the Kremlin led to dramatic images of blasts in the skies above the seat of Russian power.

Ukrainian drone strikes are bringing the war home to Russia. What does it mean for the conflict? | CNN (1)

A damaged building in Moscow following last weekend's drone strikes.

Ukraine has typically not taken direct responsibility for the attacks, though its responses have become more bullish in recent weeks. “The distance and deniability between Kyiv and these attacks is significantly less,” Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told CNN. “There now seems to be almost a tacit recognition that it was (them).”

Ukrainian Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, whose Digital Transformation Ministry oversees the country’s “Army of Drones” procurement plan, had said there would be more drone strikes to come as Kyiv ramps up its parallel summer counteroffensive aimed at pushing Russian troops out of Ukrainian territory.

Limited but effective weapon systems

It is difficult to establish exactly which weapons systems are being used in the attacks, and precisely which buildings are being targeted, with both the Russian and Ukrainian sides refusing to be drawn on the details of the incidents.

But there are clearly vast differences between these attacks, which are limited in scope, have caused few casualties and have not been aimed towards residential buildings, with those that Moscow has launched indiscriminately at Ukrainian population centers.

An attack on Russian naval vessels at a Black Sea port on Friday was carried out in by the Security Service of Ukraine with the Ukrainian Navy, a Ukrainian source told CNN. Social media videos showed a Russian warship listing heavily and being towed after Moscow claimed it had foiled a Ukrainian sea drone attack on a Black Sea naval base. Social Media Russian warship seen listing in Black Sea after Ukrainian sea drone attack on base

“Whether or not they’re actually arriving on their intended targets, the targets do seem to be buildings that are linked with the prosecution of the war in Ukraine,” Keir Giles, a Russia expert at Chatham House and the author of books on Russia’s invasion and foreign policy, told CNN. “In that respect, it’s a very different approach to what we’ve seen in Russia, with indiscriminate terror attacks.”

Giles notes there is “an open question of exactly how Ukraine is doing the attacks.” But the strikes have “shown up the incapacity of Russia’s defenses,” he added.

The one-way unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have seemingly been launched “carry a pretty small warhead and they’ve been used in small numbers, so in terms of direct military affect, it’s limited to put it mildly,” said Barrie.

“The kinds of systems that Ukraine is using are simple, comparatively speaking, but for their purpose they’re effective,” Barrie added.

Crucially, there is no suggestion that the weapons have been donated by the West. “These are systems (Ukraine) can manufacture themselves,” Barrie said, allowing Kyiv to send military messages to the Russian people alongside its defensive war at home, which NATO nations have been supporting with military aid.

“It’s fundamentally about showing that Moscow is not out of reach,” Barrie said.

Ukrainian drone strikes are bringing the war home to Russia. What does it mean for the conflict? | CNN (3)

The attacks appeared to have targeted buildings involved in Russia's war effort.

Bringing the war home to Russia

Kyiv will happily accept the limited military impact of the drone attacks, because the strikes play a far more important role in the war.

“Ukraine has identified that Russian popular opinion and attitudes to the war is one of the key areas that they need to target in order to bring the war to an end,” Giles said. “As long as Russia can pretend that the war is something that happens elsewhere, nothing is going to dent that popular support.”

Ukrainian officials have openly discussed the propaganda element of the strikes. Yurii Ihnat, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force, said the latest drone attacks on Moscow were aimed at impacting Russians who, since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, felt the war was distant.

“There’s always something flying in Russia, as well as in Moscow. Now the war is affecting those who were not concerned,” he said. “No matter how the Russian authorities would like to turn a blind eye on this by saying they have intercepted everything … something does hit.”

Early signals suggest that the recent attacks have caused unrest among an already jittery class of military pundits in Russia.

Noting criticisms from at least one prominent military blogger that Russia had not secured buildings against such attacks, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote in a recent update that “Russian authorities will likely struggle to balance the need to quell domestic concern over continuing drone attacks deep within the Russian rear with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued refusal to fully mobilize Russian society for the war and its corresponding consequences.”

Ukrainian drone strikes are bringing the war home to Russia. What does it mean for the conflict? | CNN (4)

A dramatic drone incident in May appeared to target the Kremlin.

‘A startle value’

Assessing public opinion in Russia is notoriously difficult. But anecdotal accounts at least speak to the impact of drone strikes on those in the vicinity of the attacks.

“My friends and I rented an apartment to come here and unwind, and at some point, we heard an explosion – it was like a wave, everyone jumped,” one witness told Reuters after last weekend’s strike in Moscow. “There was a lot of smoke, and you couldn’t see anything. From above, you could see fire.”

“It does seem to be achieving the kind of startle value that you might expect, where Russians are realizing that they are not personally protected from what is being done in Ukraine,” Giles said of the early indications of the strikes’ consequences.

Whether the trend will cause a wider rupturing of Russian support for the war is far from clear.

Portugese Air Force and Romanian Air Force F-16 jetfighters sit on the tarmac of Siauliai airbase in Lithuania during the NATO exercise as part of the NATO Air Policing mission, on July 4, 2023. (Photo by John THYS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images) John Thys/AFP via Getty Images F-16 questions remain as Ukrainian pilots set to start training this month

On the one hand, Putin’s longstanding pretext for the war has relied on baseless claims that Ukraine was a threat to Russian security, and that the so-called special military operation in the country was needed to defend Russia’s interest. Playing up recent attacks could be used to support that argument as the war drags on.

But after almost eighteen months of disorganization and discord, the reality that Russia’s military plans are flailing has been increasingly hard to deny. And Putin’s authority has previously appeared most vulnerable at moments when the impact of the war hits home in Russia – such as during last year’s chaotic military mobilization, and during June’s Wagner rebellion.

In that context, it is easy to see why regular reminders of the conflict inside Russia serve Ukraine’s strategic interests.

The West watches on

For all of its intended propaganda impact, sending drones into Russia is not a risk-free move for Kyiv.

The most immediate consideration is a reprisal; the Kremlin has tended to link attacks on Ukrainian cities to previous strikes on Russia, in a “tit-for-tat” approach intended to cause panic in Ukraine.

But Ukrainians are by now well acquainted to the threat of Russian air bombardments, and there has been no evidence that such assaults have dented determination in the defensive effort there.

A more prominent concern is how the West reacts to such strikes. A year ago, the prospect of Ukraine sending drones into Russia was unthinkable, given the tacit contract between NATO nations and Kyiv that the West would readily support a defensive war, but would be more wary of any actions that draw NATO into direct conflict with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg on July 30, 2023. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images) Stringer/AFP/Getty Images US and Western officials fear Putin unlikely to change course in Ukraine before 2024 election

There is nothing to suggest Ukraine has used NATO-provided weaponry in Russia – doing so is likely a bridge they would not consider crossing at this time – but it has clearly become more emboldened to take the war to Russia. And in return, Western leaders appear generally relaxed about the approach.

“The long-standing prohibition on striking into Russia that has been put in place by the suppliers … was misplaced and misconceived,” Giles said. “For all of this period, it has played Russia’s game by Russia’s rules.”

There does remain a degree of variance in how Western leaders view attacks on Russian territory, with the United States being particularly concerned. “As a general matter we do not support attacks inside of Russia,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters late last month, according to Reuters.

But Kyiv’s confidence and an increasing willingness to chip away at Russian support for the war will likely mean that such strikes remain a feature of the conflict.

“It’s impossible to tell how this will develop but we should certainly expect at least this level of a steady drumbeat of demonstrations of Russian vulnerability to continue,” Giles said.

CNN’s Josh Pennington, Mariya Knight, Zahra Ullah and Heather Chen contributing reporting


What is the argument against drone strikes? ›

If drone strikes or other military operations repeatedly cause harm to civilians, that can turn local populations against the United States. Civilian casualties can fuel terrorist radicalization and recruitment, potentially resulting in the creation of more terrorists.

How did drones change the war in Ukraine? ›

THE USE OF drones in the war in Ukraine has been increasing. Unmanned vehicles capture battlefield images, relay co-ordinates, and strike targets in Ukraine and even Russia. Whether purpose-built military devices or off-the-shelf civilian technology, the drones are having an outsized impact.

Is it moral for the United States to continue its use of drone strikes abroad? ›

As the military use of aerial drones in Ukraine and other global battlefields increases, a first-of-its kind survey reveals that Americans consider tactical strikes, used with the consent of other nations, to be the most morally legitimate or appropriate.

Is there a defense against drones? ›

What is counter-drone technology? Counter-drone technology encompasses a wide range of solutions that allow you to detect, classify, and mitigate drones and unmanned aerial vehicles. This includes everything from camera systems and specialist drone detection radar to net guns and cyber takeover systems.

What are the disadvantages of drones in war? ›

The Disadvantages of Drone Technology in Military Operations

The cost of maintenance, repair, and replacement for a drone fleet can quickly add up, and the high cost of fuel and other resources is a concern for many. Another issue with drone technology is the lack of autonomy.

What drones are used in the Russia Ukraine conflict? ›

Called the Geran-2, the drones are a Russian-made version of the Shahed-136, which explodes on impact, researchers say.

What role do drones play in the Russian Ukraine war? ›

They are being used to identify enemy positions, mark a location to be bombed, or even to change its position in case an attack fails.

What is Ukraine using drones for? ›

We're seeing an explosion of drones used, primarily relying on cheap, small commercial aircraft to provide eyes on the battlefield. That's first and foremost how both sides are using them, is really for reconnaissance and to improve their ability to target artillery. But they've also been using them as well to strike.

Which country has banned the use of drones? ›

Iran. Iran has banned drones, and they will be confiscated on arrival into the country. There was a well-documented case where two travel bloggers were detained in Iran for illegally flying their drones. They were later released, but it was a sobering incident for all drone flyers.

What countries has the US done drone strikes? ›

Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has carried out drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Drone strikes are part of a targeted killing campaign against militants.

Where are drones banned in the US? ›

The US has federal, state, and local laws that tightly regulate airspace. These no fly zones, sometimes called “no drone zones,” include airports, stadiums, concert halls, prisons, wildlife preserves, and more.

How many drones has Ukraine lost? ›

Since the start of the Russian invasion, both armies have been using several hundred unmanned aerial vehicles every day. The Ukrainians are said to be losing some 10,000 drones a month on the battlefield.

Has the US given drones to Ukraine? ›

At the same time, the United States has sent over 1,000 “kamikaze” Switchblade drones, sometimes referred to as “loitering munitions,” to Ukraine as part of its security assistance packages worth $40 billion.

Can drones drop bombs? ›

Drones are both a perfect delivery payload for explosives, and with the use of A.I., they can be directed at any target of opportunity.

How do drone strikes violate human rights? ›

Human rights groups have criticized this approach as targeting any military-aged man. This approach to drone strikes violates the fundamental principle of international humanitarian law that requires states to differentiate between civilians and combatants.

What are the negative impacts of drones? ›

Negatives of Drones

Drones are also unable to detect military base camps, surrendering military personnel and abandoned hardware. They also cannot go door to door. Too easy to operate: Video games and done warfare have too many similarities; hence making the use of drones too easy and accessible for civilians.

What is the public opinion on US drone strikes? ›

Nearly three-quarters of Republicans (74%) approve of the drone attacks, compared with smaller majorities of independents (56%) and Democrats (52%). There is a divide within the Democratic Party on the U.S. use of drones: Conservative and moderate Democrats approve of the drone attacks by a 56%-36% margin.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Eusebia Nader

Last Updated: 29/12/2023

Views: 6502

Rating: 5 / 5 (60 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Eusebia Nader

Birthday: 1994-11-11

Address: Apt. 721 977 Ebert Meadows, Jereville, GA 73618-6603

Phone: +2316203969400

Job: International Farming Consultant

Hobby: Reading, Photography, Shooting, Singing, Magic, Kayaking, Mushroom hunting

Introduction: My name is Eusebia Nader, I am a encouraging, brainy, lively, nice, famous, healthy, clever person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.