At first, it looks like ordinary surveillance footage of a large military plane sitting on the tarmac. But then the wing catches fire. A second plane flickers across the screen, and in an instant its fuselage is engulfed in flames. Even in grainy black and white you can see the smoke billowing up into the night sky.
Two Russian Ilyushin IL-76 strategic airlifters were destroyed by Ukrainian drones on Aug. 29 at Kresty air base in Pskov, Russia, at a cost of about $100 million to the Kremlin. Kresty is home to the 334th Military Transport Aviation Regiment, a seemingly well-fortified location close to Estonia’s southern border but over 430 miles from the battlespace in Ukraine. Two more IL-76s were also left badly damaged by the attack, perhaps beyond repair.
The symbolism of this sortie was profound. The IL-76 is the type of transport plane Russian paratroopers flew on into Kyiv in an abortive attempt to decapitate the Ukrainian government in late February 2022, a mission Moscow and many Western analysts believed would take no more than 72 hours. Eighteen months later, Ukraine is not only “invading” Russia on a near-daily basis, launching long-range drones from Ukrainian territory, but also — and more embarrassingly for Moscow — using assets recruited by Ukrainian military intelligence (HUR) to launch short-range ones from within Russian. HUR’s popular and highly meme-able chief, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, has confirmed that the latter method was used for the Pskov operation.
In fact, six different Russian regions were lit up on Aug. 29 by an unprecedented, multipronged attack whose other targets, successfully struck, included a fuel depot in Kaluga and a microelectronics factory in Bryansk, where components for Russian weapons systems are manufactured. Just a week earlier, on Aug. 22, Ukrainian saboteurs used quadcopter drones — weaponized versions of the type of hobbyist kit readily available for purchase — to take out a supersonic Tupolev Tu-22M3 Russian nuclear bomber on the tarmac at the Soltsy-2 air base, south of St. Petersburg. Soltsy-2 is over 370 miles from the Ukrainian border, meaning that any such unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) would almost certainly have been launched from within Russia by HUR-recruited assets.
That Ukraine’s premier spy service has such an extensive agent network within Russia comes as little surprise. Lt. Gen. Valeriy Kondratyuk, the former chief of HUR under former President Petro Poroshenko and then the head of the foreign intelligence service under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told one of the present writers in 2021 that he had in place any number of cross-border operations, many of which bore resemblances to tradecraft of the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency, but was asked by the United States to forbear for fear of “provoking” Russia. A genocidal war of conquest has evidently diminished this provocation quotient considerably as Russian proxy forces under the control of HUR have staged repeated incursions into Russia’s border regions over the past year. In June 2023, just as Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south was getting underway, these assets managed to occupy vast swaths of Belgorod oblast for a little over two weeks, an abasement of Russia’s FSB-controlled Border Guard, local law enforcement and military, which were equally caught flat-footed (or left indifferent) in late June to the abortive putsch by the mercenary Wagner Group. The proxies used MaxxPro MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles in seeming contravention of the U.S. condition that no American weapons be used over the border. Yet the incursions have been met with no public complaint from Washington, much less a cut-off in security assistance to Kyiv.
“What is happening?” a disoriented Vladimir Solovyov asked three times in the space of 30 seconds on the state-owned Rossiya-1 television channel on Aug. 30, before demanding to know how Russia would be able to “cope with F-16s” if it “can’t cope with drones.”
Russia’s most febrile propagandist has a point.
Ukraine’s ability to project power well behind a 1,000-mile line of contact has grown nearly exponentially since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. In 2023, Ukrainian UAVs have, among other things, exploded near the dome of the Senate Palace within the Kremlin, smashed into apartments in central Moscow rumored to be the homes of members of the Russian special services and hit a tower block housing Russian government offices in the city’s busy business district. Relying on Russian-language media and open-source material sourced from Russian social media channels, the BBC counted 190 suspected Ukrainian attacks inside Russia and occupied Crimea in 2023. The regular drone strikes have forced Moscow’s airports to cancel, delay and divert hundreds of incoming and outgoing flights, further damaging Russia’s aviation industry, which has already come under heavy pressure from Western sanctions.
“For all the sniping from anonymous Pentagon officials about how Ukrainians aren’t performing well in the current counteroffensive, what they’re doing superbly is something the Pentagon has long advocated: multi-domain warfare,” retired Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told New Lines, describing American military doctrine in general. “They’re hitting Russia by land, sky and sea and doing so harder and harder.”
A nation home both to a famous military-industrial complex and a population of engineers and IT specialists is only growing savvier and more innovative as the war carries on. As Budanov himself put it when asked about attacks inside Russia, we should expect only more of these operations, “deeper and deeper” across Russia.
One of the most audacious in the Crimean Peninsula was an Aug. 23 strike that took out a Russian S-400 air defense system, reportedly using a modified ground attack version of Ukraine’s Neptune anti-ship missile. Adding to that humiliation was the fact that the elimination of the S-400 was filmed by an HUR reconnaissance drone flying high above, similarly unmolested by Russia’s much-touted air defenses. Zelenskyy has claimed that “the range of our new Ukrainian weapons is now 700 kilometers [435 miles],” without specifying the systems.
So far as is publicly available, the most significant tool in Ukraine’s long-range strike arsenal is its fleet of indigenously developed long-range UAVs, which can be viewed as a Ukrainian version of Russia’s Iranian supplied Shahed-136 suicide drones. There are a number of programs developing this capability for the Ukrainian military, with private industry and Ukrainian civil society taking the lead. As with the Shahed, the key feature of these autonomous aircraft is their low cost and ease of assembly.
At one end of the spectrum are repurposed Chinese drones such as the Mugin-5 Pro, which can be purchased for less than $10,000 on Chinese marketplace websites Alibaba or AliExpress. These were successfully used in strikes against an oil refinery in Novoshakhtinsk, in the Rostov region, in June 2022, and against the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, in Sevastopol, Crimea, in August. At the other end is the Ukrainian Beaver attack drone, a far more sophisticated platform built specifically for HUR. A number of Beavers were believed to have been used in recent Ukrainian strikes on Moscow, the largest of which consisted of up to 25 drones that attacked the city in waves on May 30. The Ukrainian government did not officially claim responsibility in keeping with its preferred method of resorting to innuendo and snark, which nonetheless leaves little room for doubt. (Budanov’s acknowledgment that the Kresty mission was HUR’s handiwork, and his agency’s release of the footage of the hit IL-76s described above, was a rare exception to Kyiv’s policy of implausible deniability.)
The Beaver is a characteristic example of Ukraine’s civil-military wartime collaboration and penchant for rubbing Russians’ noses in their own vulnerability. Ukrainian politician and comic actor Serhiy Prytula stated on camera on July 30, “We have no idea what could fly to Moscow,” mere hours after drones slammed into a Moscow high-rise containing government offices. Prytula said this while standing in front of three Beaver drones, whose distinctive silhouette was identical to the aircraft that hit the Russian capital. In April 2022, Prytula told the present writers in Kyiv that his eponymous foundation was financing an ambitious drone program for Ukraine via crowdfunding. Over a year later, he has raised more than $10 million. Each Beaver is estimated to cost around $110,000.
The Kremlin is under no illusions about the potential threat of these cheap and plentiful munitions.
Even before the Ukrainian strikes had begun, in January, it started positioning short-range air defense systems in Moscow. Now a common sight is the Pantsir platform atop government buildings, including the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. In a move reminiscent of the German “flak towers” that ringed Berlin during World War II, the Kremlin has now been erecting large static platforms around Moscow to mount air defense systems.
In addition to these bespoke solutions and modified commercial platforms, Ukraine is turning to heterodox means of expanding its long-range arsenal. Earlier in the war, dated Tupolev Tu-143 reconnaissance drones, first produced in the 1970s, were used as makeshift cruise missiles against Russian targets, one such example being shot down over Kursk, western Russia, in June 2022 by a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile.
More impressively, Kyiv has repurposed the Soviet-era and obsolete S-200 surface-to-air missile into a precision-strike weapon. The first evidence of this relatively novel application was when a Russian CCTV camera filmed an incoming object with the dagger-shaped profile of the S-200 slamming into a sawmill in Bytosh, in the Bryansk region, on July 9. Russian authorities have claimed the Ukrainians have used more S-200s to target other positions both within Ukraine and in Russia including the Kerch Bridge, which connects mainland Russia to occupied Crimea, on more than one occasion, although with apparently little to no success.
Ukrainian naval drones, meanwhile, routinely harass the Black Sea Fleet and Russian logistics. What began as little more than a militarized Jet Ski, using a jerry-rigged Starlink satellite internet system for guidance and carrying a relatively small warhead, has matured into one of the sophisticated seaborne drones currently in active service.
The Sea Baby, produced and operated by Ukraine’s internal security service, the SBU, has so far been used against the large Russian landing ship Olenegorsky Gornyak, near the port of Novorossiysk, and the Russian tanker SIG. Both suffered severe damage, large holes punched into their hulls, with the Russian warship possibly damaged beyond economical repair. More importantly, the naval drones have heavily damaged the Kerch Bridge.
On July 17, one Sea Baby detonated under the dual-track roadway section of the $4 billion structure, sending one of its spans into the water. Approximately five minutes later, another drone hit under the railway section, causing less serious damage. This was the second SBU-launched attack on the bridge; the first, in October 2022, used a truck bomb and heavily damaged both the road and railway components. The Russian military has resorted to sinking block ships in the Kerch Strait in order to partially defend the channel against further drone strikes; but as the waterway is an active shipping route, a potential attack route will always have to be left open.
Ukrainian seaborne drones have now also created significant problems for Russian commercial shipping in the Black Sea.
A common misconception in the popular coverage of the Turkish-negotiated grain deal that allowed Ukrainian grain to be safely exported, from which Russia unilaterally withdrew in July and doesn’t seem likely to rejoin in the near future, was that it just protected Ukrainian shipping. The reality was that it also protected Russian merchant ships transiting to and from the various Black Sea ports, which are responsible for a significant amount of Russia’s maritime trade. In a sign of the importance Ukraine has placed on the weapons, an SBU special brigade has been created to operate the Sea Babies. The existence of the 385th Separate Special Purpose Unmanned Surface Vehicle Brigade was revealed on Aug. 24, when Zelenskyy presented the unit with its battle flag.
“Novorossiysk isn’t just a naval base,” David Rider, a maritime security and intelligence analyst, told New Lines. “It’s also where the Caspian Pipeline Consortium oil conduit from Kazakhstan terminates and an important grain export hub for Russia. Marine insurance for the region is already incredibly difficult for vessel operators to secure.” Rider added that, as of Aug. 23, the waters around Russia’s Black Sea ports — which collectively account for about 70% of Russian grain exports — will be designated a war-risk area by Ukraine, putting Russia’s economy, already crippled under sanctions, under even greater stress.
“Freight costs are rising and Russia has had to turn to less well established vessel operators who use smaller, older ships to transit grain,” Rider said. “Added to that, requests for ship charters from Russia reportedly doubled year on year in July.”
There is good reason to believe that one of the psychological motives for these deep-strike attacks isn’t just to remind a largely apathetic Russian populace that this is their war, too, but also to persuade the United States and NATO that they can afford to poke the bear harder by means “seen and unseen,” as U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan might put it. Gone are the days of worrying that a conventional war between NATO and Russia would be a close-run thing; or gone should be those days, the Ukrainians are signaling.
A senior HUR official close to Budanov messaged one of the present writers on the day of the Pskov operation. “This raises the question of the Russian Armed Forces’ inability to withstand Ukrainian air attacks,” he wrote. “But an even bigger problem is the insecurity of Russia’s military infrastructure on its border with NATO. If NATO attacks, the Russian Federation will lose aircraft and equipment at airfields and bases 400 kilometers [250 miles] deep from the border in a matter of hours. After each Ukrainian strike, Russia’s insecurity becomes more and more obvious to potential adversaries.”