Sat, 23 Sep 2023

The Week In Russia: Drone Wars

02 Jun 2023, 20:45 GMT+10

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

An apparent drone attack on Moscow fits President Vladimir Putin's narrative about Russia's war on Ukraine. But more than 15 months into what was meant to be a 'special operation' to swiftly subjugate the neighboring nation, it's still another piece of bad news for the Kremlin.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Aerial Attacks

In terms of optics, imagery, and propaganda, Putin must have been pleased, at least on some level, to see headlines like 'Drone Attacks Target Moscow And Kyiv' after unmanned aerial vehicles slammed into three apartment buildings in the Russian capital on May 30.

Putin and other officials swiftly blamed Kyiv for the strikes, slotting the incident into a false narrative that the Kremlin has used increasingly in recent months: the claim that Russia, far from fighting a war of aggression against a sovereign neighbor, is defending itself from an assault by the United States and NATO in which Ukraine is merely a weapon in the hands of the West.

The drone strike and other attacks on Russian soil that Moscow has ascribed to Kyiv may serve to bolster that narrative domestically and even abroad. It hands an argument to people in the West who call for peace with little consideration of what that could mean for millions of Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territory or for the wider world -- or of the repercussions of rewarding a land grab.

That may be heartening for Putin. At home, he is seeking to solidify backing for the invasion he unleashed on Ukraine in February 2022, through both the propaganda of patriotism and a persistent clampdown on dissent in general and criticism of the war - and even just questions about it -- in particular.

Long after the start of a 'special military operation' that he hoped would bring Ukraine to its knees in a matter of days or weeks, Putin's main hope of success in the war now hinges on Western support for Kyiv flagging substantially, analysts say.

If Ukraine is behind the strikes, as is widely believed despite denials, Kyiv is blurring lines that many believe would be wiser to keep clearly defined by refraining from attacks on Russian territory -- even though their effects cannot be compared to the death and devastation that Russia has wreaked on Ukraine.

Nobody was killed by the drones in Moscow. In the month of May alone, Russia launched 17 waves of aerial attacks on Kyiv, using drones and firing ballistic and hypersonic missiles. Three people, including a child, were killed in a Russian strike on the capital on June 1, and Russia has targeted other cities and towns across Ukraine as well.

Putin's Narrative

Even in propaganda terms, the negative effects of the Moscow strike may outweigh positive effects for Putin and the Russian state. For one thing, there's no sign that the drone strike on Moscow has engendered an upsurge of support for the war or for Putin among Russians, or that it has had a substantial effect on attitudes in the West.

And while they may further Putin's narrative of the war, the drone strike on Moscow and one in which two drones targeted the Kremlin on May 3 suggest that Russia -- even at its very heart -- is more vulnerable than he might like citizens to believe.

All in all, it's not a good look for Putin and the Kremlin, political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, wrote of the May 30 Moscow strike and the state's muted reaction.

'People want to see strong leadership, but right now, that leadership is looking increasingly helpless and confused,' she wrote.

The strikes also underscore the wide gap between Putin's apparent goals in the invasion of Ukraine and the reality of the situation.

'A War Within The War'

In a Facebook post, journalist Mikhail Shevelyov contrasted the drone strike on Moscow apartment buildings with a time when Russia was telling NATO to 'pack up its things and go back to the 1997 borders,' a reference to one of the demands Moscow made of the alliance in the months before the February 2022 invasion.

It may also be a sign that Kyiv has the upper hand in the competition between Russian and Ukrainian military intelligence agencies -- what Mark Galeotti, a Britain-based Russia analyst and expert on its security services, called 'a war within the war.'

In an article in The Times of London, published before the May 30 Moscow drone strike, Galeotti wrote that the drones targeting the Kremlin on May 3 in were 'probably launched by [Ukrainian military intelligence] officers in Russian territory or guided in by agents with a line of sight to the target.'

While Ukraine's HUR and Russia's GRU both have roots in Soviet military intelligence, the contest has been lopsided since the invasion, Galeotti suggested, writing that 'for now at least, Ukrainian imagination and initiative is running rings around Russian discipline and hierarchy.'

Meanwhile, Russia's military itself faces problems on and off the battlefield that will affect the course of the war and the future of the country, which has already been badly clouded -- along with the present -- by Putin's decision to launch the large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

'The Russian military's problems go beyond casualties and equipment losses,' Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank, wrote in a summary of an article she published in The Economist.

'It faces two looming crises in retention and veteran PTSD and other disorders,' she wrote, 'when its soldiers are allowed to leave Ukraine.'

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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