The Role of Drones in the Ongoing Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine
On May 3, 2023, two drones were launched towards the Kremlin, Russia's fortified complex in Moscow. One of the drones exploded over the Kremlin Senate, where the President's office is located, while the other exploded just above the dome. Russia has accused Ukraine of the attempted assassination of Russian President Vladimir Putin and called the incident “a planned terrorist act.” Footage verified by the New York Times shows one of the drones exploding over the Kremlin Senate. The Ukrainian government has denied involvement in the attack, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying, “We don't attack Putin or Moscow; we fight on our territory.”
Drones have played a significant role in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In 2022, Ukraine used off-the-shelf drones to attack Russian oil infrastructure hundreds of miles from the front. They managed to strike Russian airfields hosting bombers that were attempting to take down the Ukrainian power grid over the winter. According to reports, multiple Ukrainian drones have been discovered in the Moscow area since the start of 2023, in a state of wreckage. In the last few days alone, alleged Ukrainian drone attacks have targeted key Russian infrastructure, including a fuel storage facility in Sevastopol and a fuel depot in Krasnodar.
Russia has responded with a barrage of Iranian-made drone strikes at Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. In just the first two days of 2023, more than 80 Iranian-made drones launched by the Russian military were shot down over Ukraine. Recently, Ukraine has been accused 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 has not denied that the explosions were caused by drones but stated that the resulting fires were part of its shaping operations prior to the expected spring offensive.
The utilization of low-tech drones for striking and causing substantial harm to targets located deep within Russia enables Ukraine to weaken the air defenses of their opponent from a distance away from the front lines. Russia's large, modern surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-400, are not meant for shooting down cheap drones that sound like passing lawn mowers. Russia has a finite number of defensive systems, and it cannot 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.
Despite Russia's accusations, some experts suggest that the alleged attack could have been staged by Russia itself. The Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank, said Russia probably staged the attack to emphasise the existential threat to Russia's citizens and to prepare for wider mobilisation. The US has dismissed Russia's claims and accused Russia of lying. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “One thing I can tell you for certain is that the US did not have any involvement with this incident, contrary to [Vladimir Putin spokesman] Mr Peskov's lies, and that's just what they are: lies.”
Despite Russian missiles and drones wreaking havoc in Ukrainian cities that are far from the front line, Ukraine has refrained from attacking symbolic targets within Russia. President Zelenskyy has said his only concern is to defend Ukraine's cities and villages against the Russian invasion. Despite the use of drones in the conflict, Ukraine cannot generate anywhere near the volume of long-range strikes Russia can, and the drone-based means it does have at its disposal don't hit as hard as large bombs or cruise missiles.
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