Recent attacks in Moscow mark a continuation of Ukraine’s drone campaign against Russia, not its initiation.
Ukraine and Russia are both using drones extensively, but their campaigns differ in two important ways. First, Ukraine’s is far more limited and discriminate, while Russian drones and missiles routinely hit apartments, shopping centers, and other civilian targets. Next, while Russia imports its long-range drones from Iran, Ukraine is making its own.
While drones have proven useful to both sides, they are unlikely to be decisive for either.
Twice this week, drones attacked a building housing government ministries in Moscow. The Kremlin immediately blamed Ukraine. Ukrainian officials remained coy, not directly claiming responsibility for the strikes but noting that Moscow “is rapidly getting used to a full-fledged war.” In some ways, Ukraine is simply responding to what has Russia has long been doing. Since the war began Russian forces have been pummeling Ukrainian cities with artillery, ballistic missiles, and–increasingly—drones.
Kremlin officials have implied the recent drone attacks against Moscow are meant to distract attention from the “failing” Ukrainian ground offensive. This is premature: Ukrainian troops are making slow and grinding progress against well-prepared and fortified Russian defensive lines. While the Ukrainian offensive may eventually yield results, what is true is that neither side in the war has been able to make a decisive breakthrough on the ground. So, both are looking for other ways to cause pain to their adversary.
In this context, drone attacks make sense. The recent attacks in Moscow targeted a building that houses the Russian Ministry of Economic Development, Ministry of Industry and Trade, and the Digital Ministry. The attacks may be Kyiv’s reaction to Russia’s attempts to destroy Ukraine’s economy. After pulling out of the agreement that allowed Ukraine to export its grain through the Black Sea, Russian forces began relentless attacks against Ukrainian grain stores and infrastructure linked to grain exports, a critical component of Ukraine’s economy.
The recent attacks in Moscow mark a continuation of Ukraine’s drone campaign, not its initiation. Other attacks have targeted at least nine Russian oil storage depots, military infrastructure in occupied Crimea and close to the Russia-Ukraine border, and—in May—the Kremlin itself. A tally by the BBC using Russian media sources counted at least 120 suspected drone attacks on targets in Russia and Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine this year.
Ukraine and Russia are both using drones extensively, but their campaigns differ in two important ways. First, Ukraine’s is far more limited and discriminate: its targets so far have all been military and government facilities, with no civilian casualties reported. Russian drones and missiles routinely hit apartments, shopping centers, and other civilian targets. Next, while Russia imports its long-range drones from Iran, Ukraine is making its own. By the end of 2022 Russia had received at least 1,700 drones from Iran, and the two reportedly plan to open a manufacturing facility in Russia capable of producing some 6,000 Iranian Shahed and Mohajer model drones. The drones Ukraine launched against Moscow this week—and presumably against previous targets inside Russia—were designed and manufactured in Ukraine. The New York Times reports that Ukraine has produced at least three types of drones with the capability to attack deep inside Russia.
Drone strikes by both sides will certainly increase. Even if many are shot down, drones are still a cheap and effective way to cause damage to enemy forces and infrastructure. For Ukraine, which has promised not to use Western-provided weapons to attack targets inside Russia, its indigenously produced drones allow it to keep that promise and still attack into the heart of Russia, including Moscow. While these attacks have not targeted civilians, they certainly damage the legitimacy of the Kremlin in the eyes of the Russian people. Having started a war of choice, the Russian government is now unable to prevent that war from coming to Russia itself.
Indeed, Ukraine understands the utility of its drone fleet, and recently announced that it is increasing its investment in drones from $108 million last year to over $1 billion this year. It is also producing sea drones to attack the Russian Navy and other maritime targets: Ukrainian officials have said privately that sea drones participated in attacks against the Kerch Strait Bridge in July and in Crimea’s Sevastopol port last October. After several attempts to hit Russian ships, in early August Ukrainian sea drones were apparently successful in hitting the Russian navy ship Olenogorsky Gornyak, which was seen listing heavily and being towed near the Novorossiysk naval base on the Black Sea.
While drones have proven useful to both sides, they are unlikely to be decisive for either. Their effect on how the war ends will be marginal. In fact, no single weapon or system is capable of providing the decisive edge in this war. Ukraine is receiving – and in the case of drones, producing – weapons of better quality than Russia can field, but Russia retains a numerical advantage and has the ability to escalate in ways Ukraine cannot match, including the use of nuclear weapons. No clear military solution is easily available to either side. This war, like nearly all wars, will end in a negotiated settlement. But that won’t happen until both sides believe they’ll get a better deal by talking than by fighting; right now, both believe they can gain more by fighting. Drone strikes alone are unlikely to change that calculus.