Small strikes and big ambitions in Ukraine’s attacks on Russia
By Marc Santora and Ivan Nechepurenko
Drones have exploded over the gilded domes of the Kremlin. They have hit strategic Russian air bases hundreds of miles from Ukraine. They have struck a Moscow tower that houses several government ministry offices, including the one responsible for the military-industrial complex.
And they have landed a stone’s throw from one of the main Russian military headquarters, where officers sitting in large situation rooms with vast screens on its walls directly oversee and manage the war in Ukraine.
As Ukraine steps up its strikes inside Russian borders this summer, it is also making plain the nature of its targets: military-aligned sites that aid Moscow’s full-scale invasion, now in its 18th month.
“Gradually, the war is returning to the territory of Russia — to its symbolic centers and military bases,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday night. “And this is an inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process.”
His tacit, public acknowledgment of Ukraine’s growing campaign to strike in Russia marked a shift after months in which Ukraine had maintained a stance of either public silence or ambiguity about such attacks.
Hours after his statement, two Russian missiles blasted a residential building and a university complex Monday in Zelenskyy’s hometown, Kryvyi Rih, killing at least six people and wounding 75 others, officials said — a deadly reminder that Ukraine’s mostly small-scale strikes into Russia pale in comparison to the devastation Moscow has rained on Ukraine.
Moscow has used its much larger arsenal of missiles, bombs, drones and artillery — with much longer ranges and often much bigger explosives than anything Ukraine can launch — to bombard Ukrainian cities and towns, day in and day out since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s invasion. The United Nations said that through Sunday, it had confirmed 9,369 civilians killed in Ukraine and 16,646 others injured — and that it believed “the actual figures are considerably higher.”
Ukraine’s attacks on Russia are more than mere token retaliation, military analysts say, and could be critical to Ukraine’s broader effort to degrade the Kremlin’s ability to wage war. They could force Russian military planners to make difficult decisions about how to deploy resources and stoke already deep divisions in the Russian command.
Frederick B. Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, said that the strikes in Russia should be seen in the context of Ukraine’s counteroffensive to retake Russian-occupied land in the south and east of the country.
“The only advantage the Russians have is mass,” he said. “Massed infantry and massed artillery.”
The best way to neutralize that advantage is to destroy, degrade or disrupt headquarters and logistics, he said. The strikes in Russia, specifically, “create prioritization problems for the Russian high command.”
Each time a drone explodes in the heart of Moscow, the Russian capital, uncertainty about where Ukraine will hit next grows, he said.
The targets Ukraine has chosen are both military-aligned and cherished by the Kremlin as symbols of modern Russia. Over the weekend, for instance, two drones struck the gleaming towers of the Moscow City complex, home to some of the tallest buildings in Europe. Built on the banks of the Moskva River starting in the 1990s, the towers would look at home in London or New York City.
Over the years, the skyscrapers have turned into a postcard of new Russia, meant to showcase the country’s integration into the global economy. But over the years, they have also reflected Moscow’s growing conflict with the West. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, for instance, some of the new towers remained empty, only to be filled with government agencies.
One of the drones hit the offices of the Ministry of Digital Development, which shares the high-rise with the Economy Ministry and the Ministry of Industrial Development, responsible for the military-industrial complex. The ministries moved into the tower in 2019, vacating their old, cramped Soviet-style offices.
Last week, another drone damaged a residential building in central Moscow, located close to the Russian National Defense Management Center, which serves as the country’s main military headquarters.
Then, on Friday, there was a strike on Taganrog — although Ukraine did not take credit for it — a quaint provincial city in southern Russia that houses a military air base and a port, and that in the 19th century was home to playwright Anton Chekhov. A missile, apparently shot down by Russian air defenses, caused significant damage to a branch of the local fine arts museum, destroying a wall and the roof.
While Ukraine may be showing more transparency about its efforts to bring the war home to Russia, it is still treading a delicate line: Ukraine’s Western allies have long expressed nervousness about being seen as supporting strikes in Russia. That skittishness remains a major reason the United States has refused to provide Ukraine with long-range missiles despite assurances that it would use such weapons only to target Russians on Ukrainian land.
The Kremlin has been quick to blame Ukraine’s Western allies for the strikes in Russia, though it has cited no evidence. Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, said without evidence that the strikes had been carried out “with the coordination of Western curators.”
In fact, Ukrainian officials have said that it is their Western partners who have cautioned restraint.
But as the toll grows from Russia’s daily bombardment of cities from Odesa to Kyiv and Lviv to Kharkiv, the Zelenskyy government is trying to use every tool at its disposal to fight back. Alarms blare night after night as air-defense teams race to meet incoming Russian ballistic and cruise missiles, and attack drones.
The anger, exhaustion and grief felt by millions of Ukrainians was captured in an animated video released by the Ukrainian air Fforce. It showed a child sifting through the wreckage of a home destroyed by Russian bombs, finding a drawing of his family and folding it into the shape of an airplane. The paper plane turns into a fleet of drones, and a series of arrows shows the path the fleet is flying. The last line points squarely to Moscow.
While Ukrainian officials do not talk publicly about how the strikes are carried out or about the weapons used — for operational security and to keep the Russians off balance — Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said Monday that Russians should expect more violence in their country.
“Until the occupiers leave the Ukrainian territory, until the criminals are punished, there are no safe places in the aggressor state,” said Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukrainian military intelligence.
The Ukrainian government, with its United24 program to collect private donations, is engaged in an ambitious campaign to expand its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, including long-range drones capable of flying more than 600 miles. Ukraine is also building ever more sophisticated maritime drones capable of hitting Russian ships in ports in Russia.
Seven Ukrainian companies were building drones at the start of the war. Now, there are more than 40 with contracts, according to Ukrainian officials.
Ukraine is still vastly outgunned and outnumbered — Russia has expanded conscription and the call-up of reservists. But Ukrainian officials and Western military analysts say the drone strikes in Russia, along with other factors, carry an outsize psychological effect.
“The increased chance of being compelled to fight, drone attacks on Moscow, exceptional level of domestic repression and the recent Wagner mutiny combine to highlight the Russian state’s failure to insulate the population from the war,” the British military defense intelligence agency reported Monday.