Pentagon gives Ukraine green light for drone strikes inside Russia

Pentagon gives Ukraine green light for drone strikes inside Russia

(The Times, 9 декабря)

Michael Evans, Marc Bennetts

The Pentagon has given a tacit endorsement of Ukraine’s long-range attacks on targets inside Russia after President Putin’s multiple missile strikes against Kyiv’s critical infrastructure.

Since daily assaults on civilians began in October, the Pentagon has revised its threat assessment of the war in Ukraine. Crucially, this includes new judgments about whether arms shipments to Kyiv might lead to a military confrontation between Russia and Nato.

This represents a significant development in the nine-month war between Ukraine and Russia, with Washington now likelier to supply Kyiv with longer-range weapons.

“We’re still using the same escalatory calculations but the fear of escalation has changed since the beginning,” a US defence source told The Times. “It’s different now. This is because the calculus of war has changed as a result of the suffering and brutality the Ukrainians are being subjected to by the Russians.”

Washington is now less concerned that new long-range strikes inside Russia could lead to a dramatic escalation. Moscow’s revenge attacks have to date all involved conventional missile strikes against civilian targets. Previously, the Pentagon was warier of Ukraine attacking Russia because it feared the Kremlin would retaliate either with tactical nuclear weapons or by targeting neighbouring Nato nations.

However, Washington does not want to be seen publicly giving the green light to Kyiv attacking Russian soil. Its position on Ukraine’s attacks inside Russia was defined this week by Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, who said: “We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia.”

However, a US defence source said: “We’re not saying to Kyiv, ‘Don’t strike the Russians [in Russia or Crimea]’. We can’t tell them what to do. It’s up to them how they use their weapons. But when they use the weapons we have supplied, the only thing we insist on is that the Ukrainian military conform to the international laws of war and to the Geneva conventions.

“They are the only limitations but that includes no targeting of Russian families and no assassinations. As far as we’re concerned, Ukraine has been in compliance.”

Within these limited constraints laid down by the Pentagon, Kyiv is now adopting a more aggressive, more persistent offensive against targets inside Russia. Ukraine has been careful to use its own drones, not US-supplied weapons, to carry out the strikes. The drones, based on Soviet Tupolev TU-141 Strizh surveillance systems developed in the 1970s, have been reprogrammed to give them longer range and a sizeable munition for launching at low altitude.

The modified TU-141s were deployed this week in three raids against military bases 300 miles inside the Russian border and on fuel tanks about 80 miles across the Ukrainian border, in each case evading air defences. The drones can fly at 600mph at low altitude, like cruise missiles.

Ukraine and America are playing a careful game over these strikes, which have added a bold new ingredient to drone warfare in the nine months since the Russian invasion. The Pentagon refuses to make any public statements about the attacks, while Kyiv has declined to claim responsibility.

If the US decides to supply Ukraine with longer-range weapons capable of striking deeper into Russia, the fear of potential escalation could increase dramatically. But Pentagon officials have made it clear that requests from Kyiv for longer-range US weapons, including rockets and fighter bombers which could be used for even more effective strikes inside Russia or occupied Crimea, are being seriously considered.

“Nothing is off the table,” a senior US defence official said.

Weapons high on Kyiv’s wish-list include the army tactical missile system (ATACMS), which has a range of 190 miles and would be devastatingly effective if used in deep-penetration raids within Russia.

The Pentagon, in discussions with Nato allies, has until now deferred the decision on whether to offer the hardware and US defence sources would not be drawn on a report in the Wall Street Journal claiming the M142 high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) that has been operating in Ukraine for several months had been modified to prevent it firing ATACMS.

The drone Ukraine wants more than any other is the American MQ-1C Gray Eagle, which has a range of 250 miles, is armed with four Hellfire missiles or eight Stinger missiles, can remain airborne for more than 24 hours and is equipped with sophisticated reconnaissance systems.

Eric Edelman, who was a top policy specialist at the Pentagon and worked with the state department as ambassador to Finland and Turkey, believes the delay in supplying such weapon systems is no longer sustainable.

“The administration is excessively self-deterred by the prospect of an alleged escalatory spiral which is largely illusory,” he said. “The best thing for all concerned is for the Ukrainians to be able to win as quickly as possible. Hence it makes sense to give them ATACMS and Gray Eagles and help them to put together a package of main battle tanks as well.”

When the Russian invasion began on February 24, US policy on arming Ukraine was based on two key principles: that the American weapons supplied would not be used to attack Russia itself; and the choice of equipment would be conditional on the need to avoid war between Nato and Russia. The objective was to arm Ukraine to defend itself against an illegal assault on its sovereignty, not for Nato to confront Russia. But those early sensitivities have all but vanished because of Russia’s attacks on civilians and less anxiety about provoking the Kremlin.

“Unlike at the beginning, we are now prepared to give a lot more detail about the shipments,” one US defence source said.

For example, the first shipment included man-portable air defence systems. It was only later that the state department confirmed they were Stingers.

“We were initially worried about spelling out that we were supplying Stingers because of the scar tissue left from our supply of these weapons to the Mujahideen against the Russians in Afghanistan,” the defence source said.

Strikes on motherland will further erode public support for war

Ukraine’s newfound ability to strike at targets deep inside Russia has set nerves jangling in Moscow and exposed President Putin’s promises of a quick and limited war.

Russian troops who poured over the Ukrainian border in February packed special victory parade uniforms and less than a week’s worth of rations. Yet despite his expectations of a swift military operation, Putin will now be the first Russian leader since the Second World War under whose rule enemies have struck the motherland.

Three Russian soldiers have been killed and two long-range bombers damaged this week by suspected Ukrainian drones, including an attack on the Engels airfield near Saratov, almost 400 miles inside Russia. Explosions also hit military facilities in Ryazan, about 120 miles south of Moscow, and Kursk, 60 miles from the Ukrainian border. “It has become clear that there are no strategic facilities left in Russia that could be considered absolutely secure,” Alexander Kots, a Russian war correspondent, wrote.

The prospect of waves of Ukrainian drones heading towards Russian military bases raised concerns among the Russian military. “We are not in a position to effectively counter these drones,” an unnamed Russian soldier told the Volya Telegram channel. “There will be massive raids on air bases inside Russia, as well as on other military and infrastructure targets. In theory, they can even get to Moscow.”

The British defence ministry said the Kremlin was likely to consider the drone attacks to be among Russia’s “most strategically significant failures” since the start of the war. “Psychologically, I think it strikes a blow,” a western official said.

The attacks, together with setbacks on the battlefield, look certain to further undermine the Russian public’s support for the invasion. Only one in four Russians want their army to continue fighting in Ukraine, according to leaked Kremlin polls. State television has even discussed the prospect of Russia losing the war, warning of “catastrophic” consequences for the country if that happens.

In public, Putin and other Kremlin officials continue to insist that their “special military operation” will be a success. Yet in private, the president and his henchmen are thought to have begun to make plans for an escape.

“Putin’s entourage has not ruled out that he will lose the war, be stripped of power, and have to urgently evacuate somewhere,” Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who is now a political analyst, wrote on Telegram. Citing an unnamed insider, Gallyamov said the Kremlin was considering Argentina or Venezuela as safe havens. Igor Sechin, a senior Putin ally, is thought to be overseeing the project, which is codenamed Noah’s Ark.