Comment: Ukraine takes calculated gamble with attacks in Russia

Drone and other attacks offer strategic benefits but could backfire if Russian civilian deaths mount.

By Leonid Bershidsky / Bloomberg Opinion

The May 30 drone attack on Moscow, with at least three unmanned aerial vehicles hitting apartment blocks, is the most dramatic evidence so far of a major shift in the Russo-Ukrainian war: The fighting is now taking place in Russia’s own territory as well as in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government retains a fig leaf of deniability, as Ukraine’s Western allies officially frown on offensive action on Russia proper, as opposed to on Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions. So Kyiv has not claimed responsibility for the latest drone attack, for previous attempted drone strikes on the Kremlin and on the Krasnodar region in the south of Russia or for the recent incursion of a small group of fighters using Western military vehicles into Russia’s southern Belgorod region. Nor has it admitted shelling villages and towns or derailing trains on the Russian side of the border. Too many of these incidents have happened, however, to see them as anything other than a Ukrainian tactic of taking the war to the Russians.

The tactic is a gamble with a transparent short-term military upside and a potential long-term psychological downside, which Ukraine has managed to avoid so far by keeping the civilian casualties low.

The military justification for attacks deep into Russian territory, be they daring cross-border raids or drone and missile strikes, has two prongs.

Firstly, such feints force the Russian command to consider the many vulnerabilities of Russia’s vast territory. In the Belgorod region, the Ukrainian group, apparently led by renegade Russians, struck at a place where a newly, and expensively, fortified stretch of the border ended and a border post was barely manned. The fighters seized control of three sleepy villages and hoisted a Ukrainian flag on top of a social club before being driven back. The drones that reached Moscow penetrated the tightest air defenses in all of Russia simply because they flew low and apparently didn’t use satellite navigation on the approach; even Putin recognized that Moscow’s air defenses need work. The upshot, then, is that the Russian military command must divert forces and attention from the front line in Ukraine, and that’s a help to the Ukrainian command as it seeks to confuse the enemy about the direction or directions of the pending counteroffensive.

Secondly, the attacks are useful in Ukraine’s sophisticated information warfare. They have erased any negative publicity that could have arisen from the surrender of Bakhmut, a town that Ukraine expended considerable resources to defend. They also have successfully tested the attitudes of Ukraine’s Western allies toward more daring Ukrainian action. The official U.S. and United Kingdom reactions have been calm. The resolve of Western nations to supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles such as the U.K.’s Storm Shadow and warplanes such as the F-16 has not noticeably wavered. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has again succeeded in pushing the boundaries of the possible, not least by providing new tantalizing evidence that Russia, when probed, was weak and unable to set red lines. The attacks are a tangible implementation of the idea that Putin only understands force; and is out of his comfort zone when confronted with it.

Both these advantages are especially important if Ukraine is confident of its counteroffensive plans. If the Ukrainian military can decisively sunder Russia’s “land bridge” to Crimea, a long crescent of territory in Ukraine’s east and south that is — in some places — less than 100 miles wide, all Russian territorial gains in Ukraine since 2014 will be in deep trouble so quickly that Putin may be unable to fight on. If, however, the counteroffensive falters as Ukrainian troops face extensive new Russian fortifications and a more experienced and cautious adversary, the buccaneering raids on Russia proper could backfire.

Putin’s biggest problem as the invasion drags on isn’t the relatively poor state of the professional military, undermined by corruption and the boorish incompetence of Russia’s generals. It is, rather, the lack of a strong pro-war consensus. Most Russians have been unwilling, for example, to contribute even small amounts of money to the war effort. The morale of the troops stationed in Ukraine also has been low; the invading army’s biggest weakness. And Putin’s first attempt at mobilization last fall caused an exodus of fighting-age men that rivaled the number of new troops called up.

Attacks on Russian soil have the potential to change that. They did during the Chechen conflict in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 1994, as a separatist Chechen government declared its intention to secede from Russia and Russia intervened militarily, an overwhelming majority of Russians supported a peaceful solution or even an unconditional troop withdrawal. In 1997, 51 percent of those polled said they were in favor of granting independence to Chechnya. By the end of 1999, however, a two-thirds majority supported a continued military push; a public mood sustained by a Chechen raid into the neighboring region of Dagestan and a string of bloody terrorist attacks on aircraft, the Moscow subway and, finally, residential buildings in Moscow and elsewhere. Some of Putin’s longtime enemies have blamed him for setting up the building explosions as a false flag operation aiming exactly for that effect; be that as it may, the Chechen independence cause became wildly unpopular, and Putin’s successful campaign to defeat the separatists or entice them to the Russian side enjoyed broad approval.

Ukrainians, of course, are not scared of making Russians angry; many of them believe, quite justifiably, that Russia has thrown all it could at them and yet they’re still standing. A public mood shift in Russia, however, can still change the trajectory of a protracted campaign. Putin needs Russians to forget who actually started this war, and he needs them to get angry so he can tap Russia’s mobilization reserve of at least 2 million people. In other words, he needs a Chechnya effect.

Various flavors of prominent “patriots,” such as Wagner mercenary army founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and Ukraine war veteran Igor Girkin a.k.a. Strelkov, are already up in arms about the drone strike on Moscow, with Prigozhin cursing out the military leadership and Girkin dripping his usual sarcasm. But that’s not how the Chechnya effect is created.

The necessary condition for it is a significant civilian toll from Ukrainian attacks. Chechen separatists’ acts of terror resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, a sacrifice of innocent life that was as hard for Russian society to internalize as the Russian atrocities have been to Ukrainians. So far, however, the Ukrainian operations have been more notable for their mocking, disrespectful style than for their deadliness. Sporadic deaths and injuries from Ukrainian shelling of Russia’s border regions have been reported, but not on a scale that could sway a largely indifferent population. The drone raid on Moscow claimed no lives, though two of the UAVs actually flew into apartment windows.

Attacks of this kind only make Russians inured to danger. Like Londoners in George Orwell’s “1984,” they go about their business despite the regular explosions somewhere in the background, or even quite near them.

“The word ‘attack’ is probably too big for what happened,” Tina Kandelaki, a society beauty who’s headed up various pro-Kremlin ventures, posted on Telegram after the Moscow drone raid. “I see no panic,” Margarita Simonyan, a top TV propagandist, posted allegedly from a traffic jam in downtown Moscow. “I see a guy with dreadlocks, some girls with silicon enhancements, lilacs blooming, cafes, cars.”

With the Russian military in Ukraine on the defensive and a majority of Russians at most wishing “that all this ends soon,” the risks of a “counteroffensive lite” on Russian territory are, at least for now, paying off for Ukraine. If there is a red line Zelenskiy could cross as he “pokes the bear,” it’s either invisible or still too distant.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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