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Hundreds of miles past the border Why Ukraine's recent strikes on Russian air bases could signal a turning point in the war
Two days in a row this week, the Ukrainian Armed Forces used drones to strike targets deep within Russia. Satellite images from December 5 show that Ukraine hit the Engels air base near Saratov and the Dyagilevo air base near Ryazan. Within a few hours, the Russian Aerospace Forces used aircraft and cruise missiles from those same airfields to launch strikes in Ukraine. Then, on December 6, a Ukrainian drone hit another target at a Russian air base: an oil storage tank in Kursk. That same day, a drone targeting Crimea's Belbek air base was reportedly shot down by Russian air defenses. This new wave of Ukrainian strikes on Russian territory could prove to be a turning point in the war; Kyiv has now shown that it, too, is capable of striking infrastructure targets on enemy territory. Meduza lays out what we know about Ukraine's drone capabilities and what that portends for the coming months.
What drones did Ukraine use?
A source from Ukraine’s military leadership told The New York Times that the drones that struck Russia's airbases this week were launched from Ukrainian territory. The distance from Kyiv-controlled land to the furthest target that was struck — the Engels air base — is about 630 kilometers (390 miles).
The Russian Defense Ministry reported that “Soviet-made jet-powered drones” were used to carry out the strikes. This is consistent with security camera footage of the strike at the Engels base: in the clip, the sound of a jet engine can be heard right before the explosion.
The only “Soviet-made jet-powered drone” that can travel more than 600 kilometers is the Tu-141 Strizh. This old-school unmanned aerial vehicle:
- Was developed in the late 1970s for operational reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines. It was capable of traveling a thousand kilometers along a preset route at nearly the speed of sound. By modern standards, the device was huge: it was almost 15 meters long and weighed more than five metric tons.
- By the 1990s, the Strizh had become obsolete as it was a relatively easy target for air defense systems. In the decades since, it’s been used by the Ukrainian military as a target for training anti-aircraft defense system operators. Among other components, the drones’ sensors, which used film cameras, are severely outdated. Nonetheless, after 2014, the Ukrainian Armed Forces began using the drones for intelligence operations in the Donbas.
- In October 2022, Ukraine reported that it had developed its own model of suicide drone capable of traveling 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and carrying a warhead weighing 75 kilograms (165 pounds). On December 4, the day before the strikes on Russia's Engels and Dyagilevo air bases, the Ukrainian military reported that the drones were undergoing their “final tests.” The drones in question are likely an upgraded version of the Tu-141. After all, Ukraine has the facilities and expertise necessary to make them: in the Soviet area, Strizh drones were manufactured at the Kharkiv Aviation Factory.
- According to open sources, Strizh drones are capable of traveling at an altitude of 50 meters. This makes air defense systems’ job much harder: the lower a target is traveling, the shorter the distance from which air defense systems can detect and hit it (and the high its odds of evading defeat).
- The Strizh’s most basic model had no strike capabilities. But Ukraine has tried to fix this shortcoming: at the start of the full-scale war, a Ukrainian Tu-141 landed in Zagreb, Croatia, after being launched from Vinnytsia, Ukraine. Croatian investigators found a 120-kilogram bomb inside.
- Finally, the Strizh’s 1970s model used an inertial navigation system and thus would not have enough precision for compact targets. In the 2020s, however, the problem may have been solved with the help of widely available civilian satellite technology, as the Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drones used by the Russian army have shown.
Will Ukraine start launching regular strikes on targets deep within Russia?
Theoretically, these kinds of jet-powered kamikaze drones are analogous to cruise missiles (in fact, that’s essentially what a Strizh with a warhead attached is).
However, it’s unclear exactly how the Ukrainian Armed Forces have modernized the Strizh drones in recent months (and whether the new drones are Strizh Tu-141s at all). If Strizh Tu-141s are indeed the basis of the new weapons, it’s important to note that in the 1980s, the Kharkiv Aviation Factory only produced about 150 drones. As a result, Ukraine could have problems with large-scale production of the weapon (especially in wartime conditions). At the same time, the most effective tactic for using the drones would likely be to launch dozens of simultaneous strikes (in order to “overload” Russia’s air defense systems, which can only deal with at a limited number of targets at once). That’s what the Russian military does when it launches large-scale attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.
In addition, not all components of the Strizh drones were manufactured in Ukraine, though the most important ones (such as the Kharkiv-built motor) are certainly accessible. Everything else can be bought: Ukraine’s defense sector, unlike Russia’s, isn’t under sanctions.
But the first use of Ukraine’s new models leaves some questions. It’s currently unclear whether the drones are precise enough to compensate for their relatively light warheads. On December 5, for example, Ukrainian drones failed to fully destroy even a single bomber — leaving Russia capable of using the very bombers that were targeted to launch strikes on Ukraine (the Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that the drones were shot down by the air bases’ air defense systems and that only their remains landed on the bombers, but this has not been confirmed).
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In any case, Ukraine’s drones are not powerful enough to replace the ATACMS long-range missiles that Ukraine has long sought from the West to use with its HIMARS multiple rocket launchers. Washington, by its own admission, is concerned about the risk of uncontrolled escalation should Ukraine launch a strike deep within Russia, and thus has not supplied the ATACMS missiles, which are extremely precise and are equipped with 560-kilogram (1234-pound) warheads.
Nonetheless, there’s little doubt that Kyiv will do everything possible to acquire more weapons capable of striking targets behind Russian lines. The Ukrainian army will likely soon develop drones analogous to the Iranian Shahed-136 ones used by Russia; they have all of the necessary technical capabilities. These drones would be significantly cheaper than jet-powered ones and would complement them well during large-scale attacks.
And even if Ukraine’s strikes don’t do significant damage to Russian equipment, they still force the Russian Armed Forces to spend resources guarding against them: Moscow will now have to ensure that territory far beyond the front line is covered by its air defense systems. Russia’s military command is trying to achieve a similiar goal with its strategic strikes in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have now demonstrated their ability to respond symmetrically (albeit on a smaller scale).
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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