Ukraine Strikes More Boldly, Seeing Little Room for Russia to Escalate

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KYIV, Ukraine — Flames and dense smoke billowed over a Russian airfield on Tuesday after what appeared to be a third drone strike in two days by Ukraine against a military base on Russian soil, signaling a bolder phase of Ukrainian strikes enabled by longer range weapons and not limited by fear of reprisals.

After nine months of Russian bombing of their towns and cities, the Ukrainians applauded the taste of retaliation and the demonstration that their side could now reach deep into Russia, theoretically able to hit Moscow if it chose to do so. The attacks also showed millions of Russians for the first time that they too can be vulnerable.

Ukraine’s new long-range strike capability entered the picture Monday with strikes against air bases some 300 miles from nearest Ukrainian territory, demonstrating its ability to evade Russian air defenses and hit with precision. Both the Russian government and a senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to convey sensitive information, said they were carried out by Ukraine using drones.

“If Russia judges the incidents to have been deliberate attacks, it is likely to regard them as one of the force’s most strategically significant failures since the invasion of Ukraine,” the British defense ministry said in a statement. an intelligence test released Tuesday.

On Tuesday, an explosion ignited fuel tanks near an air base in southwestern Russia’s Kursk region, about 80 miles from Ukraine. Russian officials said it was another drone strike, but did not explicitly blame Ukraine.

The subject remains sensitive enough for the Ukrainian government to diligently avoid any public admission of responsibility for the strikes. But there is a widespread feeling among officials and citizens that, beyond nuclear escalation, Russia can do little more against Ukraine in retaliation than it already does, with its waves of attacks on the country’s energy grid and other infrastructure.

“If someone attacks you, you fight back,” Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister, said in an interview, clarifying that he was not speaking on behalf of the government and could not confirm the attacks. “You can’t consider it, this person will attack you because you fight back. There is absolutely no strategic reason not to try this.”

As of this week, he added, “the understanding of the Russians that they are invincible and cannot be achieved in Russia will not be there.”

Western analysts agreed that there was little risk of escalation from Moscow. Russia has already escalated, said Robin Niblett, former director of Chatham House, the London research institution, “by destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure to try to change the strategic context of the war, forcing Ukraine to the negotiating table and warning Europeans that it becomes more expensive. day after day to rebuild Ukraine.”

Kiev has been trying to bring the fighting to Russia since the beginning of the war. Within a month of the February invasion, the Ukrainian army launched a helicopter attack on fuel depots in Russia, triggering Russia’s first air raid alert since World War II. Explosions at ammunition depots, railway bridges, fuel depots and military bases in Russia and the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine followed.

But those attacks were launched from fairly close range, no more than a few tens of kilometers.

In October, Ukrainian state-owned weapons maker Ukroboronprom said it was finalizing development of a drone with a range of more than 600 miles and a 165-pound warhead. And on Sunday — a day before two distant Russian bases were hit — the company said it had completed testing of the new weapon.

Russia’s defense ministry said Monday’s attacks were carried out using Soviet-era jet-powered drones. Weapons experts said the specific aircraft was likely the Tupolev TU-141 Strizh, a surveillance drone first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and repurposed by the Ukrainians, possibly carrying an explosive device. Analysts say it can fly at 600 miles per hour at low altitudes, like some cruise missiles, making it difficult to detect and shoot down.

The attacks are “some kind of symbolic gesture,” said Douglas Barrie, a military space expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “You go after the bomber bases with something you have in your inventory, or in the museum, or you’ve been hiding in the back of your airfield because you haven’t used it in a long time.”

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While this week’s attacks do not seem to have significantly reduced Russia’s military capability, Ukraine’s determination to attack inside Russia could pose a challenge to Western allies, who are determined not to get involved in a shooting war with Russia .

“We have not encouraged or enabled the Ukrainians to invade Russia,” Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken said at a press conference on Tuesday. “But the most important thing is to understand what Ukrainians are going through every day, with the continued Russian aggression against their country, and our determination to make sure that they, along with many other partners around the world, have in their hands the equipment they need. need. must defend themselves and defend their territory.”

The United States and other NATO countries have consistently refused to provide Kiev with Western weapons capable of reaching targets far into Moscow’s territory, such as the ATACMS missile, which has a range of up to 300 kilometers, with a much higher speed and more explosive power than a drone. The Allies have also been unwilling to supply Ukraine with the modern Western tanks and fighter jets it has requested.

But Ulrich Speck, a German foreign policy analyst, said Russian threats to escalate the war, particularly with nuclear weapons, are sounding increasingly hollow. World leaders friends with Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin, including China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have warned against it, and US officials have threatened unspecified dire consequences if the Kremlin takes that step.

NATO and Washington, Mr Speck said, “have accepted that the Ukrainians are pushing this forward, and over time fears of Russian escalation have subsided.”

Russian airfields and the warplanes based there have been used to launch many of the missiles Moscow’s armed forces have used for months to target Ukraine far behind the front lines, killing civilians and destroying vital services such as housing, electricity, heating and water were damaged.

Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army officer, wrote on the Substack blogging platform about Ukraine’s new willingness to attack inside Russia: “It is not an escalation, as some will no doubt argue. But it is a necessary political and military measure for Ukraine to limit the humanitarian damage from Russia’s relentless drone and missile attacks.”

The English air base on the Volga, one of the targets hit Monday, is the kind of sensitive target that the United States and its allies have feared Ukraine could strike with Western long-range weapons, if it had them. The base is home to a number of Russian nuclear-capable long-range bombers, part of Russia’s nuclear deterrent force, and there are unconfirmed reports that some of those bombers were damaged in the attack.

Ukrainian officials do not believe Russia is capable of escalating its conventional military strike against their country in response, and even hope attacks on Russian soil will erode that ability, Zagorodonyuk, the former defense minister, said.

“The consideration, as far as I can see, is that Russia will use all available means, regardless of our reactions, to force Ukraine into submission,” he said. “That’s their strategic plan.”

Reporting contributed by Lara Jacks in Roma, Steven Erlanger In Brussels, Marc Santora in Kyiv, Ukraine, Richard Perez-Pena in New York and Michael Crowley in Washington.