What’s going on behind the scenes with the recent news that Ukraine has attacked three airfields in mainland Russia? According to widespread media coverage the Russians have lost a couple of aircraft damaged and a few military personnel killed at bases well away from the Russo-Ukrainian border.
The clever money seems to be on the Ukrainians using armed drones, with speculation that the Soviet-built and designed Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh being the prime suspect. These were actually introduced by the Soviets and used mainly between1979-89, and the Ukrainians appear to have procured some in 2014.
The Tu-141 was designed to be primarily a reconnaissance drone equipped with various types of surveillance sensors, and has a range of about 1,000 kilometres in radius. It is powered by a turbojet rather like the German V1 of Second World Ward infamy was, and indeed may have taken some of its design inspiration from Hitler’s “doodlebugs”.
So, not exactly cutting-edge modern technology by any stretch of the imagination, but clearly still effective in the context of the Russo-Ukraine war. Whether the Ukrainians have armed these drones with some sort of munition or whether they relied on their kinetic energy alone for the terminal effect is as yet unclear, but they did enough to damage aircraft and personnel.
The impact of these Ukrainian drone attacks throws up a number of interesting issues. The first of these concerns targeting. Although the airfields attacked were many hundred of kilometres from the Russo-Ukraine border, the Ukrainians knew exactly what was there – the bombers that Russia was using to launch missile attacks at them.
I have speculated before on whether Ukraine is receiving intelligence from western satellites (in my opinion almost certainly), but in any case the plethora of commercial satellites providing mapping information now ensures that there are few places to hide, or to hide aircraft in this case. The battlefield is almost entirely “transparent” these days. Plus they may have operatives on the ground (HUMINT) inside Russia.
Second, although we do not know how many of the Tu-144 were launched and how many may have been shot down, the fact that at least three of them travelled so deep into enemy territory and arrived successfully on-target suggests something is lacking in the Russian air defences. The widespread use on uncrewed aerial and sea-surface autonomous and semi-autonomous drones has been a wake up call for everyone.
Third, we should note how quick the USA was to declare that it had not “encouraged or enabled” Ukraine to carry out these specific actions. The US-led NATO military alliance had ruled out previously providing such arms to Kyiv, amid concerns that this could lead to a major escalation. Secretary of State for Defence Antony Blinken was making clear that this was still the case when he spoke in the aftermath of the attacks.
Most important of all, however, is that it appears that Ukraine now has the intent and capability to strike back on Russian soil. There have been other instances before, of course, like when helicopters were used to strike across the border near Belgorod earlier in the war, but these have tended to be shallow penetrations and few and far between. Now we know that the Ukrainians have the wherewithal to strike as far as Moscow itself if they choose to do so.
And Ukraine has the absolute right to do so having been under bombardment from their enemy for over nine months now. That they have been able to identify and attack locations from where the main missile threat to their cities and towns emanates signifies a new chapter in the war. As the old military adage has it, the best form of defence is attack.
For the Russians it’s just yet another sign that the war they started is not going to plan. Putin and his military commanders have quite clearly been rattled by the development and are increasingly hysterical in their efforts to reassure their population that everything is still proceeding according to plan. I don’t think the Russian public is that stupid to believe them though.
Ukraine is now clearly on the front foot and has the initiative in this war. Zelensky will be keen to ensure that there is no let up now they have the momentum, and Russia cannot be allowed any breathing space to rest and recuperate. We face another few bloody months of fighting at least before there’s any chance of a negotiated peace.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk
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