Almost as soon as the war in Ukraine began, strange things started to happen in Russia. Buildings connected to the country’s military and its war effort caught fire, saboteurs were suspected – and occasionally caught, according to state TV – and recently, air bases quite far away from Ukraine have started to blow up.
All of this gives the lie to the official Russian claim, from the early days of the war, that this was a special military operation – small in scope, limited in objective – fought between the Russian military and a few fanatics and drug addicts far away. The conflict was in fact a war, as we know – and it is between the armed forces of the Russian Federation, its proxy Wagner Group mercenaries and Iranian allies, and the entire nation of Ukraine.
This week, there have been more long-range attacks on an airbases. Nothing has been unconditionally confirmed, of course, but visual evidence appears to suggest that the Ukrainians have again managed to attack the Engels-2 air base, which was previously attacked on 5 December, where part of Russia’s long-range bomber fleet is quartered.
The Russian MoD claims that the ‘missile’ was shot down before it did any militarily significant damage, but still says that three technical servicemen were killed. As usual, official Ukrainian sources are saying little, but hinting at rather a lot.
As Oscar Wilde might have said, to have one’s heavy bomber fleet attacked once is bad luck, but twice seems like carelessness. If the Ukrainians really are using an old Soviet design (a Tupolev Tu-141, built for reconnaissance) as a weapon, this would demonstrate both their ingenuity and the difficulty Russia has in dealing with these drones.
Engels-2 is about 800 kilometres from Ukrainian territory. If the drone travelled all that way – twice – that would be quite a coup for Ukraine. (Some suggest that one or both of these attacks could have been launched from Ukrainian teams working inside Russia – which is more plausible in one way, but much more audacious in another.)
As analysts have long said, drones are tricky things to locate and to shoot down. Israelis have fired Patriot missiles – each costing roughly a million dollars – at both cheap Hezbollah drones and more expensive Russian ones in the last few years. The Hezbollah drone could have been bought off Amazon. It was destroyed, but the cost to damage ratio was hardly efficient. The Russian drone was targeted by two Patriots. They each missed, and incredibly, it got away.
But this is not the place to say that drones will change warfare as we know it. Like all technology, they have their limits. The fan-favourite Ukrainian Bayraktar TB-2, made in Turkey, was able to notch up a number of successful strikes at the beginning of the war. But it has faded from relevance as Russian air defence – lacking at the start of the conflict – has become more consistent.
What ought to be said instead is that Ukrainian attacks inside Russia are unlikely to stop. Countries spend their time planning for likely conflicts. And for Ukraine, only one country among their near neighbours was ever going to try to invade.
Since 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian intelligence has been making detailed plans and building teams for precisely these sorts of operations – with or without longer-range missiles from America or the rest of Nato.
Sabotage, long-range drone attacks, cross-border helicopter raids – these have been going on for some time. They will not cease or wind down while Russia continues to fight, trying to annex Ukraine and to destroy its nationhood.
Slowly, criticism has been building of the western allies who have been drip-feeding Ukraine material. Ukraine is not allowed Nato-standard tanks, for reasons no one has adequately explained without looking abashed. Ukraine is not allowed long-range rockets, for reasons that are as strange as they are maddening. Ukraine cannot have modern fighter aircraft, for reasons which are unclear even months after they were first requested.
It was not allowed western air defence systems, too, until this last month, when widespread rocket attacks on soft targets across the country convinced western leaders that they were being a little too arbitrary and parsimonious, even for them.
Ukraine would like those weapons and it would like those systems. It can think of things to do with all of them. But it will not ration itself to meet American and German diktats. It has been planning an unequal fight against Russia for quite some time. It will use whatever it has to defeat its better-armed foe and to continue to show that it is ‘alive and kicking’, and militarily ambitious.
If Russia does not like its air bases being attacked, its leaders know what to do. They can stop the war. Until then, the creativity and energy of Ukraine will be directed into finding new and uncommon ways of causing the Russian armed forces pain.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.