A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 4, 2023

What the Drone Strikes On the Kremlin Actually Reveal

Let's start with what it doesn't reveal: that Ukraine was trying to assassinate Putin. First, he neither works nor sleeps in the Kremlin, as every intelligence agency in the world knows. Second, killing him would be counter-productive as he might then be replaced by someone who is actually competent...

But what it does reveal is that even inexpensive and lightly armed long range drones pose a threat to Russia's air defenses - as they would to most developed nations' - because they cannot reasonably be brought down by missiles, rockets or guns of lesser or greater value than the drones themselves. And they force the nation under attack to spread its defenses, rendering them less effective. JL

Brynn Tannehill reports in The Atlantic:

At 3 a.m. Moscow time on May 3, a pair of drones appeared to explode on or near the Kremlin. False flag or fizzled attack—it may not be possible to (know) who launched the drones and why. But the incident reveals how important long-range drones have become. Ukraine could use long-range drones to get Russia to spread out its air defenses, which would make it easier for other drones to get through. For Ukraine, a linear increase in drone capability means an exponential increase in difficulty for Russia in defending against it. Cheap drones are available to any state and if Ukraine can use them to thwart the world’s most advanced air defenses, the implications will travel far beyond this war.

At about 3 a.m. Moscow time on May 3, a pair of drones appeared to explode on or near a dome at the Kremlin. The explosions were caught on camera from several angles and seemed to cause little damage. Videos of the strikes aired on Russian state television and rapidly made the rounds on the internet. Things only got weirder from there.

The Kremlin quickly put out a statement accusing Ukraine of attempting to assassinate President Vladimir Putin and vowing retaliation. Ukraine vehemently denied responsibility for the strikes, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters to “take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt.” Online, some observers fretted that the strikes had crossed a potential nuclear red line. Others, such as retired General Mark Hertling at the Institute for the Study of War and the Atlantic staff writer Tom Nichols, concluded that the attack was most likely a false-flag operation. Still others speculated that the small drones could have been launched by Russian partisans or Ukrainian special-operations teams inside Russia.

False flag, special op, or fizzled attack—it may not be possible to get to the bottom of who launched the drones and why anytime soon. But the incident and the reactions it has elicited from the war’s major players reveal just how important long-range drones have become in this conflict.

The U.S. has supplied Ukraine with many weapons systems, but it has steadfastly refused to provide those with longer range, most notably the missiles known as ATACMs. There is reportedly concern over how Russia would react if U.S.- produced munitions were to land in Russia proper (though territories occupied by Russia are fair game). The Ukrainians, however, don’t want to allow Russian territory to be a haven from which to attack, but they need long-range munitions if they are to hold targets inside Russia at risk. Their solution has been to repurpose old military drones and cheap off-the-shelf commercial drones as long-range munitions, filling the role of conventional cruise missiles.

In 2022, Ukraine was already using off-the-shelf drones to attack Russian oil infrastructure hundreds of miles from the front. Ukraine managed to strike Russian airfields hosting the bombers that were attempting to take down the Ukrainian power grid over the winter using repurposed Cold War reconnaissance drones. The wreckage of several Ukrainian drones has reportedly been found in the vicinity of Moscow since the beginning of 2023.


More recently, Russia has accused Ukraine of using small, piston-engine propeller drones to strike at fuel-storage areas deep within Crimea and on the Russian side of the Kerch Strait, nearly 200 miles from the front lines. Ukraine did not deny that those explosions were caused by drones—rather, it stated that the resulting fires were part of its shaping operations prior to the expected spring offensive.

Using low-tech drones to hit and significantly damage targets far from the front lines and inside Russia allows Ukraine to thin out Russian air defenses. Russia’s large, modern surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-400, can weigh 5,000 pounds or more and travel at nearly 3,000 miles an hour. They aren’t meant for shooting down cheap drones that sound like passing lawn mowers. Using surface-to-air missiles for this purpose is a bad trade from a financial standpoint as well—akin to killing a fly by smashing it with a Fabergé egg.

Short- and medium-range systems (like the Pantsir) are better suited to the task but cover a much smaller area, meaning that Russia would need many of them to defend a large region. This is where the tyranny of mathematics kicks in: For every mile of additional range that Ukrainian drones have, the amount of Russian territory they threaten increases by roughly the square of the range. For Ukraine, a linear increase in drone capability means an exponential increase in difficulty for Russia in defending against it.

Russia has a finite number of defensive systems, and a finite number of people to crew them. The country can’t hope to defend all of its crucial assets if Ukraine has drones with the range and accuracy to hit them. The drones Ukraine is using now have a limited payload, meaning they are mainly good against targets that are relatively soft and susceptible to damage, such as fuel tanks, or aircraft parked in the open.

So why would Ukraine even hypothetically want to strike at a target like the Kremlin, causing little if any damage? Such an attack might induce Russia to move scarce air-defense resources around to better protect targets that Russia would be embarrassed to see hit. For example, in 1987, a German teenager in a Cessna penetrated Soviet airspace and landed in Red Square. The incident led to a mass reorganization of Soviet anti-air defenses. In World War II, the Doolittle Raid caused Japan to pull back some of its interceptor aircraft from the front lines to protect the home islands. Today, Ukraine could use long-range drones to try to get Russia to spread out its air defenses, which would in turn make it easier for other drones to get through.

For its part, Russia might be tempted to stage a false-flag drone attack to discourage the United States or NATO from trusting Ukraine with long-range missiles or the components to build them. The Russian theory of victory seems to revolve around persuading other countries to withhold military aid so that it can grind Ukraine down through attritional warfare until Ukraine sues for peace under terms favorable to the Kremlin. Convincing the West that Ukraine cannot be trusted with long-range weapons would support this effort.

What both parties know is that on the modern battlefield, range is of the essence. The war fundamentally changed when Ukraine acquired HIMARS that extended its reach to 50 miles. Cheap drones, such as the Ukrainian UJ-22 and the Iranian-made and Russian-operated Shahed-136, have played a major part in the conflict and will continue to do so.

The ability to reliably strike far behind the front lines will be crucial to Ukraine’s stated goal of retaking Crimea “without a fight.” Ukraine will need to sever Russia’s access to the peninsula by both land and sea. The former requires success in the spring ground offensive. The latter calls for Ukraine to reach Russian ships attempting to offload cargo in Crimean ports such as Sevastopol, and the most plausible way to achieve this reach of 200 miles and more is by means of cheap, disposable drones.

Ukraine has already used uncrewed surface vehicles to attack ships in and around the harbor. It may also be able to overwhelm Russian air defenses with large numbers of drones, or to approach from angles that limit the effectiveness of air defenses: Ukraine has already made several successful attacks with aerial drones into Sevastopol.

Ukraine doesn’t have the warheads to sink large ships, but it can use the drones it has to  target those carrying fuel, or to attack dockside equipment (such as cranes, forklifts, and trains meant to carry cargo away from the docks) necessary for unloading ships and getting materials where they are needed. Just preventing the ships’ cargo from going ashore or leaving the docks would go a long way toward stymieing Russia’s efforts to defend Crimea.

The spring offensive is likely drawing near, and it could easily determine the outcome of the war. Ukraine doesn’t seem to be hiding its long-term goals regarding Crimea either, and those will require long-range weapons to systematically isolate the peninsula and make retaining it untenable. Without long-range munitions forthcoming from NATO, Ukraine seems to be relying on indigenously produced, cheap, plentiful, easily manufactured drones to set the conditions for victory. Russia’s reaction to the attack on the dome at the Kremlin may reflect its willingness to do whatever is necessary to prevent Ukraine from acquiring long-range capabilities. But cheap drones are available to almost any state actor—and if Ukraine can successfully use them to thwart some of the world’s most advanced ground-based air defenses, the implications will travel far beyond this war.


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