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Ukraine war: Why are drone attacks increasing in Russia?

Roman Goncharenko
June 2, 2023

Recent weeks have seen an escalation in drone attacks in Russia and Ukraine. What's behind the increase, and how has the West reacted?

Three people hug in front of a building complex in Kyiv
Russian drone strikes have become commonplace across Ukraine, especially in Kyiv, as seen here on May 30Image: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

Early Friday, Ukrainian forces said they had shot down 36 Russian missiles and drones in and around Kyiv overnight. The attack after Russian missile strikes on the capital killed at least two women and one child a day earlier.

In the Russian border region of Belgorod, meanwhile, there have also been reports of shelling. The Russian Volunteer Corps, a far-right paramilitary group of alleged ethnic Russians that supports Ukraine, announced it was preparing another raid on Russian territory. Russian media reported that a drone had been shot down in the Kaluga region of Russia, just one day after the Moscow was targeted by several drones — an attack that Russia blamed on Ukraine.

Such drone attacks — mainly on military and energy infrastructure — have become commonplace over the past year, not only in parts of Ukraine annexed by Russia, including Crimea, but also in the Russian Federation proper, albeit less frequently.

One of the first targets was a refinery in the Rostov region last June. In December, the Engels military airbase, which is located in the Saratov region more than 600 kilometers (370 miles) away from Ukraine, was attacked twice. As a rule, Ukraine has denied responsibility for such drone attacks.

A firefighter walks amid broken glass
Russia has caused untold damage with strikes across Ukraine since February 2022Image: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

Drone and missile attacks by Russia all over Ukraine are much more frequent, and the deaths and damage have been much higher.

Increase in drone attacks over past month

However, in the past month there has been an increase in drone attacks and shelling in territory that is not directly on the front line — on both sides. Experts differ as to the reasons behind the escalation.

Gerhard Mangott, an Austrian expert on Russia, saw a connection between this week's drone attack on Moscow, the shelling of Russian border regions and the deployment of "partisans," which is how he described the members of the paramilitary units stationed in Ukraine, namely the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, who say they are Russian citizens.

"Clearly, the Ukrainian side wants to bring the horror of war to Russia as well," Mangott told DW. "It wants to show the people there that the state is not capable of protecting them, whether in the border regions or Moscow," he said, adding that this undermined the Kremlin's attempts to "create the impression in Russian society that there is no war at all, that everything is normal."

But Gustav Gressel, a military expert at the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it was important to distinguish between the drone attacks on Moscow, which were "instruments of psychological warfare to get the Russian nomenklatura out of bed even early in the morning with the noise of flak," and the "Belgorod matter and the attacks in the border region," which he said "are related to the counteroffensive."

Gressel said Kyiv was trying to force Moscow to increase security along its border, and thus be compelled to withdraw troops from Ukraine. He pointed out that it would not become clear for weeks yet whether this strategy had improved Ukraine's chance of a successful counteroffensive.

West shows restraint in response to drone use

The West has been restrained in its response to the recent developments. A German government spokesperson told DW on Wednesday that international law allowed Ukraine to attack Russian territory in self-defense, but added that Berlin was opposed to German weapons supplied to Kyiv being used for such attacks.

There was a similar reaction from the United States, which has so far supplied most weapons to Ukraine. Officials in Washington said there was no indication that US-made drones or munitions had been used in the Moscow strikes, and White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US had been very clear with Ukraine "that we do not support attacks inside Russia."

Police officers in front of a building in Moscow
Kyiv has denied responsibility for a series of drone attacks in Russia that damaged apartment building and infrastructureImage: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

However, the Russian Volunteer Corps did use US armored vehicles for its recent armed incursion into Russian territory, which Gressel said he hoped would not happen again "because it could upset the escalation alarmists in Washington."

He warned that "the White House, in particular, is being very cautious, so Kyiv should be more careful." Generally, however, Gressel said he thought Ukraine had the "right to attack targets in Russia." After all, he added, "nobody asked [Vladimir] Putin to start this war" and thus the Russian president had to live with the consequences.

Ukraine trying 'to raise the cost of the war for Russia'

Oleg Ignatov from the International Crisis Group said he thought Ukraine was trying "to raise the cost of the war for Russia," pointing out that the US had a "great influence over Ukraine, but not in every area." He said he believed Washington would be able to persuade Kyiv not to use US weapons such as the HIMARS rocket launchers to attack Russian territory, but that it would not be able to do much more. 

Ignatov thought the arms that Kyiv has requested from the West are primarily used as a deterrent. At the recent G7 summit in Japan, US President Joe Biden said his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had given him a "flat assurance" that the F-16 fighter jets he has long been demanding would not be used to attack Russian territory.

So far, it has only been agreed that Western partners will train Ukrainian pilots, but no decision has been made about delivering the planes.

This article was originally written in Russian.