Putin Is Getting Pummeled With His Own Favorite War Trick

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters/Getty

Moscow made a startling announcement on Thursday, accusing Kyiv of launching a drone strike on the Kremlin with the intention of assassinating President Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian officials denied involvement in the incident—and without stronger evidence, it’s more likely that the attackers were aiming at the building, which is easier to hit than Putin himself.

Whether or not Kyiv had anything to do with this particular attack, the drone strike on the Kremlin is not a one-off incident. Last week, residents of the Russian-held port of Sevastopol were greeted with a massive column of smoke coming from a nearby oil depot. Russian officials claimed that Ukraine had launched a drone strike—one of several recent attacks on the Kremlin’s facilities and naval vessels in the Crimean Peninsula.

The week before, Ukrainian drone boats penetrated Sevastopol harbor, where Russia keeps much of its Black Sea Fleet. The extent of the damage was hard to verify—but burning oil tanks are impossible to miss in the age of social media and commercial satellite imagery. This slew of recent attacks appears to signal a crucial shift in momentum for Russia’s war on Ukraine. The strategic use of drones—a go-to Russian tactic for grisly attacks on Ukrainian civilians—is now a crucial part of Kyiv’s strategy on the battlefield.

Though Russia continues to use drones and missiles to launch attacks against Ukraine’s cities, their effectiveness is declining, and the chances that Moscow can overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses are looking more and more slim.

Ukrainian forces are completing their training on more and better U.S. and European-made air defense systems that were pledged months ago. With winter now officially over and millions spent unsuccessfully trying to freeze Ukrainian civilians into submission, it is an open question whether the Russian military will keep targeting Ukraine’s cities with the same vigor.

Russia’s strategic use of drones may be waning, but Ukraine is just getting started. As part of their effort to build an “army of drones,” Ukraine dramatically increased their use of drones for strategic targeting this year.

Beyond Wednesday’s drone attack, Russian officials claimed that one-way attack drones struck sites across Crimea in late March. Last week, Russian officials claimed that they downed a Ukrainian drone 19 miles east of Moscow. And in February, Ukrainian drones were shot down near St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Unlike Crimea, these strikes are penetrating deep into Russian territory and much further than Ukraine’s pre-war conventional weapons could reach. In all, Ukrainian officials plan to spend over half a billion dollars on drones alone in 2023—to attack Russian soldiers at the front, and their military and oil facilities at the rear.

Putin is taking the drone threat seriously. In the lead-up to the February attacks, the Russian government placed air defenses throughout Moscow, most notably on the roof of the Ministry of Defense building. Russia has also been jamming satellite navigation services like GPS around major cities in the hopes of disrupting Ukrainian drones, some of which likely use some form of satellite navigation to reach targets over long distances.


Ukraine’s growing drone capability makes things hard for Russian forces in two major ways.

Firstly, Ukraine’s drone fleet allows Kyiv to threaten supply depots, airfields, and other military sites that were once considered safe. Ukraine lacks the long-range missiles that Russia has—systems it desperately needs to hit Russian forces as they defend key sites like Bakhmut and prepare for their own set of offensives later in the year. A spokesperson for Ukraine’s Southern Command said that the attacks on Crimea were “laying the groundwork” for such an offensive.

Secondly, a robust Ukrainian “army of drones” puts Russia in the same air defense dilemma as Ukraine has been in since last October. The frontline is vast enough that drones can often get past Russia’s air defense systems with some luck and careful planning. Protecting so much airspace with limited air defense systems will be costly for Russia, especially when they are needed at the frontline to deter Ukraine’s other aircraft.

Just as some experts were concerned about the U.S. sending expensive air defense for Ukraine to use against inexpensive drones, Russia will also have to choose between longer-range systems that are expensive, or cheaper shorter-range systems that cannot defend wider areas. Putin will need to think carefully about how to manage this new threat from Kyiv—and whether his strategy of trying to use drones to “exhaust” the Ukrainian population, as President Volodymyr Zelensky has said, is still within reach.

Russia’s smaller and less technologically advanced neighbor has gone from being a modest military power, which Putin assumed he could overwhelm in a week, to a formidable force. Now that Kyiv is poised to regain more territories—all while hitting major Russian cities with new innovations—Moscow’s forces are left wondering where Zelensky’s drones will strike next.

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