Kyiv, Ukraine – “Flying UFOs” have rained down on Russia in recent days – some of them perilously close to the capital, Moscow, and to the birthplace of President Vladimir Putin.
Russian officials and media, who use the term – “unidentified foreign objects” – appear to be nervous and accuse Ukraine of the drone attacks.
On Wednesday, Ukraine denied targeting Russia, citing attempts to launch domestic attacks, which Moscow did not accept.
With a dash of black humor, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that a sense of “panic and collapse” was growing in Russia, “manifested by the increasing localized UFO attacks on infrastructure sites”.
Throughout the war, Ukrainian commanders and senior officers routinely denied any responsibility for attacks on Russian soil—often resorting to mocking disorganized Russian soldiers.
A Ukrainian military expert said that although Kiev can and should attack Russian territory, it does not want to reveal the details of its operations there.
“We are allowed to strike the aggressor country in principle, but we stick to the rule that if and when it happens, [the strikes] “Military sites must be targeted first,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.
“But due to many circumstances, at this point, we will not announce what and how to do on enemy territory,” he said.
Analysts said Kiev is preparing more attacks with its growing fleet of domestically produced drones — and senior pro-Kremlin figures are worried.
“I have a bunch of questions,” Tina Kandelaki, acting head of the TNT television network, wrote on Telegram.
“Is this our new reality? How many zones will there be [hit] With the next attack? Does the Department of Defense have a plan to protect our cities? Who can guarantee security for our people? ” I wrote.
🇺🇦 Don’t hit RF territory. 🇺🇦 waging a defensive war to eradicate all its lands. This is an axiom.
Radio frequency panic and dislocation processes are accumulating, and this is reflected by an increase in insider attacks on infrastructure facilities by unidentified flying objects.
– ихайло Подоляк (Podolyak_M) March 1, 2023
What happened so far?
On February 26, two explosions rocked an airport in pro-Putin Belarus, damaging one of Russia’s most prized weapons – one of only nine A-50s that can locate Ukrainian air defense units. Belarusian “guerrilla fighters” claimed responsibility for the attack.
On Monday evening, at least four drones failed to reach a power station in the western Russian city of Belgorod that lies less than 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border.
And on Tuesday, an “unidentified flying object” was seen over St. Petersburg, where Putin was born.
The airspace over Russia’s second-largest city roughly 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) north of Ukraine was closed briefly, and fighter jets took off as part of a rehearsal — a “conditional target designation and interception exercise,” a defense official reportedly said. .
Earlier, though, when asked about the St. Petersburg incident, the Kremlin said little, only that Putin knew about the events.
On the same day, at least one drone carrying explosives went down 100 kilometers (60 miles) southeast of Moscow, but caused no damage, according to the region’s governor, Andrei Vorobiev.
Hours earlier, “unidentified flying objects” had reportedly crashed near an oil refinery and farm in southwestern Russia, more than 800 kilometers (500 metres) from the nearest Ukrainian military facilities in Odessa.
After two local explosions were heard, the refinery – the only one on Russia’s Black Sea coast with a tank terminal – which engulfed 200 square metres, caught fire but was quickly extinguished.
Also on Tuesday, local officials said, a “drone belonging to Ukrainian forces” was shot down over the nearby Bryansk region.
On Wednesday, Russia said its air defense responded to a drone attack on occupied Crimea, which was blamed on Ukraine. Moscow has long accused Kiev of using weapons to strike the annexed peninsula.
In July, they attacked the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, wounding six people and forcing Moscow-appointed authorities to cancel Russian Navy Day celebrations in Crimea.
More drone strikes in Crimea destroyed military aircraft and an arms depot in August and damaged navy ships in October.
In early December, a Ukrainian drone struck a Russian military air base 650 kilometers (400 miles) east of the border that hosts strategic bombers used to launch missile strikes on Ukraine.
Most likely, the attacks involved a Soviet-designed Tu-141 jet drone produced in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
The apparent Ukrainian bombing and drone attacks on Russia’s far western regions such as Belgorod, Kursk, Bryansk and Orlov have become regular since last May as they destroy homes and injure and even kill civilians.
A number of Russians, including a 12-year-old girl and a 70-year-old woman, have been killed in the border areas since last May.
Are the apparent Ukrainian attacks on Russia important?
According to Nikolai Mitrokhin, a historian at the German University of Bremen, most of the Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian soil have been ineffective so far.
He noted that eight out of 10 Ukrainian drones do not reach their targets, because Russia has either found ways to intercept and destroy them, or because it is losing contact with its operators.
He said that the drones that reach the target do not pose a great danger.
However, “about once a month, Ukrainian forces manage to organize a really large-scale diversion against Russian aviation or, in rare cases, Russian fuel depots,” he told Al Jazeera.
However, their impact on the general war arena is much less than the use of US-supplied HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, he said.
In recent months in Ukraine, swarms of Russian and Iranian-made Shaheed aircraft have inflicted severe damage on Ukrainian soldiers, key infrastructure and residential areas.
In October, someone flew near this reporter’s apartment window.
Kiev was frantically looking for a way to counter the attacks.
This week’s attacks are “more of a warning and a test of what [Ukrainian-made] Drones are able to do before committing a crime. It’s a signal to Russia — not to incentivize missile strikes on Ukraine,” Kiev-based analyst Alexei Koch told Al Jazeera.
And while Russian forces are providing the resources for a sustained offensive, Ukraine is “showing that it has something to fight back with,” he said.
A Tu-141 was used, most likely, to attack the Tuapse oil refinery on Tuesday.
Russian media claimed that other attacks were carried out by Russian-made Granat-4 drones, Chinese civilian models loaded with British-made plastic explosives, or Ukrainian-made UJ-22 drones.
The UJ-22 looks like smaller versions of fighter jets from World War II and was announced in 2021. It can carry anti-tank bombs or jet bombs and fly up to 800 km (500 miles).
He said that the production of the new Ukrainian-made UAV is not centralized, and Russia will not be able to destroy the manufacturer with specific attacks.
“The industrial potential will be sufficient, the capabilities are decentralized, and there is no large holding or factory that has a monopoly on UAVs in Ukraine, so Russia’s chances of hitting industrial buildings are very doubtful,” he said.
Other analysts, however, denied the effectiveness of the alleged Ukrainian attacks.
These insignificant incidents mean nothing. At least, for now, Pavel Luzin, a defense analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank, told Al Jazeera.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”