Moscow drone strike spells trouble in the air for Putin

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Kyiv: It is not only Muscovites who would have been shocked by the large-scale drone strike on the Russian capital on Tuesday.

Western observers have doubted whether Kyiv could threaten the city 500 kilometres from its border.

But Ukraine has long been developing its own equivalent of Russia’s Iranian-supplied “Shahid 136” suicide drones, which have been flung at Kyiv time and again in recent months.

Smoke rises from Kursk airport in Russia in December 2022 as Moscow blamed Ukraine for launching missile strikes well into Russian territory.Credit: AP

A source in Ukrainian military intelligence, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed that there were multiple independent teams of Ukrainian engineers developing their own versions of the munition.

Kyiv has used a number of similar drones to strike targets inside Russia for nearly a year.

Previous strikes had been smaller in scale, with small numbers or sometimes even single aircraft hitting strategic or economic targets. They have included the Novoshakhtinsk oil refinery, in Rostov, in June 2022, or the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea, in July 2022.

More recently, the same type of drone apparently deployed in the attack on Moscow – a Ukrjet UJ-22 – was reportedly used in an attempt to target a Gazprom gas compression station in the outskirts of the city, just over 80 kilometres from the Kremlin.

What is different about Tuesday’s attack is its sheer scale. More than a dozen drones were reportedly used, revealing a more mature capability than many believed Kyiv possessed.

It was also possibly hinted at in a statement by Major General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, promising revenge for Russian attacks on Kyiv.

Ukrainian air defence intercepts a Shahed drone in mid-air over Kyiv,Credit: AP

“Our response will not be delayed. Soon, everyone will see everything”, Budanov said on Monday.

The drones that were filmed flying over Moscow in multiple videos uploaded to social media bear a striking resemblance to the Ukrainian Ukrjet UJ-22 Airborne unmanned aerial vehicle.

This model of drone – originally developed as a reconnaissance and light attack drone for the Ukrainian military – has a range of 800km, according to Ukrjet, putting Moscow well within its reach from inside Ukrainian borders.

Like the Shahid, it is powered by a small petrol engine and it can carry a similar sized explosive payload.

While Ukraine has been developing numerous versions of the Iranian “Shahid 136” suicide drone, its foreign partners have also been rushing the procurement of a number of unmanned systems. These include the American Phoenix Ghost, which has been extensively used by the Ukrainian military over the past year, as well as a number of “complex” suicide drones sent by the British government.

Investigators inspect an apartment building in Moscow damaged by a Ukrainian drone.Credit: AP

While simple, slow-flying and relatively easy to shoot down, the unsophisticated nature of the such drones is one of their main advantages.

Easy to produce and costing relatively little in military terms, they can be cheaply and easily manufactured at scale and launched en masse in large waves.

The success of the Ukrainians’ own drone program should not come as much of a surprise, given the country’s proud aeronautical heritage and still relatively advanced industrial base, even after more than a year of war.

After all, this is the same country that gave the world the largest aircraft to have ever flown, the Antonov An-225 Mriya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits an exhibition at the Zotov Cultural Center in Moscow on the day of the strikes. The word in lights spells “soul”.Credit: Sputnik/AP

The Russian government was also clearly aware of the possibility of such a system being used to attack targets in Moscow and elsewhere inside Russia.

Over the past few months, Russian air defence systems have been redeployed to protect strategically and symbolically important targets within the country.

In one highly publicised example, in January a Pantsir S1 short-range air defence system was placed on the roof of the Russian defence system in the heart of Moscow.

The specific employment of the Pantsir, a system designed to engage threats at short range, was a good indication of the threat the Russian military expected to face – incoming drones.

A Ukrainian UJ-22 UAV drone after an earlier attack inside Russia.Credit: Ukraine Weapons Tracker/Twitter

For the Russians, the advent of the Ukrainian Shahid will present a number of immediate problems.

Firstly, the penetration of Moscow’s air defences is acutely embarrassing for the government, demonstrating its inability to protect the capital from the suspected Ukrainian incursion.

President Vladimir Putin sought to dispel the fears of citizens but his reference to similar problems with air defences at a Russian-controlled Hmeimim airbase in Syria would hardly have calmed nerves. The Russian capital is not some little-known military installation in a far-off country.

Aside from the obvious symbolic effect, the drone raid may also have strategic impact in forcing the Russian military to redeploy further air defence assets to protect key locations within Russia from any further Ukrainian drone strikes.

Here, Russia’s sheer size works against it. There are numerous strategic sites spread over a huge amount of territory.

Putin’s billionaire friends, many of whom live in the wealthy neighbourhoods hit in Tuesday’s strikes on Moscow, could also now pressure him to do more to protect the city.

For the Ukrainians, any redeployment of Russian air defence systems away from the front line brings obvious benefits at a potentially crucial time in the war, just before the launch of their long-touted counter-offensive.

The Telegraph, London

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