KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine is striking more aggressively against targets deep inside Russian territory, former military officials and analysts say, as Kyiv assesses that Moscow’s military is fighting at the limits of its conventional capabilities.
So far, Ukraine’s long-range attack on an airfield along the Volga River in central Russia has not caused widespread damage. The Russian Ministry of Defense said the latest was on Monday, when three fighters were killed after air defenses shot down a Ukrainian drone approaching the Engels air base near the city of Saratov.
But the attacks remain highly sensitive, and the Ukrainian government has not publicly acknowledged them, forcing Russia to move the planes, potentially complicating Moscow’s cruise missile strikes against Ukraine’s energy networks.
Since some of the cruise missiles were launched by bombers flying from the airfield hit in the attack, the attack could have destroyed the missiles on the ground at the Russian airfield before deployment.
Officials and civilians in Kyiv generally believe that Russia cannot do more with Ukraine than it has not done without strengthening its nuclear forces, so the temptation to cut Moscow’s missile capabilities at home outweighs any escalation concerns.
“If someone attacks you, you fight back,” former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, now an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, said this month. Earlier in the interview, Ukraine’s first long-range strike on a Russian military target hit Engels and another soldier at an airfield in central Russia.
Mr Zagorodnyuk clarified that he did not speak for the government and could not confirm the strike, adding: “You cannot assume that this person is going to attack you because you are fighting back. There is absolutely no strategic reason not to try to do that.”
Serhiy Hrabskiy, a retired colonel and war commentator for the Ukrainian news media, said the Ukrainian military did not hesitate to attack airfields, fuel tanks and ammunition depots, all legitimate military targets. As the war draws ever closer to Russia and the occupied peninsula, targeting of sites in Crimea and cross-border artillery showdowns have become routine.
“Nothing happened,” Mr. Hrabsky said in an interview. “Why? Because the Russians simply don’t have the capability to do that.”
The U.S. and Ukraine have agreed that Kyiv will not use U.S.-supplied weapons against targets inside Russia. The Biden administration has vowed to avoid U.S. involvement that could escalate into a direct confrontation with Russia. But U.S. officials clarified that they had no objection to Ukraine striking back with its own weapons.
A Ukrainian state-owned military contractor says it has developed a long-range drone that could theoretically strike Moscow. Russia said Ukraine attacked an air base on Dec. 5 using a Soviet-era jet-powered surveillance drone.
“We are not trying to prevent Ukraine from developing its own capabilities,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said after the attack.
The Ukrainian long-range strike coincided with Russia running out of cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, told Ukrainian news outlets that Russia has enough missiles to strike Ukraine’s power grid for two weeks after repeatedly attacking power schemes, substations and other infrastructure targets throughout the autumn and early winter. Three waves attack Liga.net in an interview published on Monday.
Russia launches 70 to 75 missiles at roughly weekly intervals, but the time between attacks has been increasing.
“They’ll run out,” Mr Budanov said.
The most advanced missile in Russia’s arsenal, the Kinzhal, a hypersonic weapon that can reach its target in minutes and is nearly impossible to shoot down, is even more in short supply, Mr Budanov said.
Mr Budanov said Russia had 47 Kinzhals in its arsenal when the invasion began and had only built “a handful” during the war.
“You can frighten the world with the fact that Kinzhal is there,” he said. “But when you start actually using them, what’s the next step?”