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Whose drones over Moscow

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Written by Adrian Hill

Russia claimed that Ukraine conducted a series of drone strikes against Moscow on May 30 as Russia again targeted Ukraine with Iranian-made Shahed drones. Does that make diplomatic and military common sense?

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The Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) accused Ukraine of attacking Moscow with eight drones on the morning of May 30, and claimed that Russian forces shot down five of the drones and suppressed three drones with electronic warfare systems. Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyev, however, claimed that Ukraine launched 32 drones of which some targeted the prestigious neighbourhood of Rublyovka in Moscow. According to the highly experienced team at the Institute for the Study of War ( ISW) in Washington DC, one Russian independent outlet claimed that the drone strikes predominantly targeted areas near Russian President Vladimir Putin’s residence in Novo-Ogaryovo and other elite neighbourhoods around Moscow. The city’s Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, stated that several buildings in Moscow suffered minor damage, and Russian sources amplified footage of a minor explosion in the Novaya Moskva neighbourhood. A Russian milblogger claimed that drones flying over Moscow resembled Ukrainian attack drones. Geolocated footage shows Russian forces shooting down drones identified as Ukrainian from on the spot accounts in several different areas of Moscow and Moscow Oblast. Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak denied that Ukraine was ‘directly’ involved in the drone strike but forecasted that there could be an increase in such attacks in the future.

Does that make sense

This drone attack took place days after Presdent Zelensky had flown to Japan for the G7 Summit via the Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia. He had returned home with vital support from both. He had pulled off the paramount objective – F 16 fighters.

Joe Biden has never made a secret of his concern, despite all the deliberate Russian exploitation, not to have NATO supplied weapons used to attack Russia or targets in Russia. He has been dragged to the point where he agreed to the supply of fourth generation F 16 fighters and modern battle tanks. A stunt such as the one that took place on the 30 May would have been a very good way of unravelling the whole fighter supply. The very idea that a sharp operator such as Zelensky would do something so silly is hard to swallow. Frankly, it’s the kind of trick that inadvertently could set off a nuclear exchange. Why would any Ukrainian commander want to attack Russian civilians when they know that can only increase support for Putin?

How not to blunt a counter-offensive

Russian forces conducted another Shahed 131 and 136 drone strike against Kyiv overnight during the 29 May to 30 May. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces shot down 29 of 31 Russian Shahed 131 and 136 drones that targeted Kyiv. Senior Russian officials claimed that Russian forces struck high profile targets in Kyiv during recent strikes, likely to appear successful in retaliation for the recent Belgorod Oblast incursion. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu claimed that Russian forces struck a Patriot air defence system in recent days. Ukrainian Air Forces Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat denied Shoigu’s claim.

Russian forces conducted another series of missile strikes on Ukraine overnight from 31 May  to 1 June and during the day on 1 June. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Russian forces launched 10 Iskander ballistic missiles targeting Kyiv City from Bryansk Oblast, which borders Ukraine, in the morning of 1 June, and that Ukrainian air defence destroyed all 10 missiles. The Ukrainian General Staff also reported that Russian forces launched two S-300 missiles targeting critical infrastructure in Kharkiv City during the day on June 1. Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Colonel Yuriy Ihnat stated that Ukraine cannot strike the launch points of Russian Iskander missiles on Russian territory because Ukraine is under obligations not to strike Russian territory with Western-provided weapons. ISW has previously assessed that Russian forces began a new limited air campaign in recent months to degrade Ukrainian counteroffensive capabilities, but that the Russian prioritization of Kyiv is likely further limiting the campaign’s ability to meaningfully constrain potential Ukrainian counteroffensive actions.

Yet one as ask how on earth do these drone and missile attacks assist Russia to keep its grip on Ukraine? And when the Ukraine counter-offensive comes what will be left to stand in its path? Not much, I suspect. Launching missiles night after night at Kiev and other towns may gobble Ukraine’s SAMs but they’re shooting down more than 90% of the Russian missiles. Russia’s military chiefs ought to be the ones not sleeping at night. Their leader repeatedly threatens nuclear strikes. They’re worried enough to have opened the hotline with our senior staff and presumably with the Americans as well. Because if that really was the Ukrainians – and I’m dubious – then it doesn’t say much for Russia’s most advanced air defences.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to downplay the drone attack on Moscow to avoid exposing the limited options he has to retaliate against Ukraine. 

Putin claimed that Russian forces struck the Ukrainian military intelligence headquarters “two, three days ago” and that the Russian Armed Forces continue to respond to Ukraine’s “war against Donbas” by striking Ukrainian military infrastructure. Putin insinuated that the drone strike on Moscow was Kyiv’s response to Russian strikes. ISW say the Russian MoD did not claim that it had struck the Ukrainian military intelligence headquarters recently. Putin also stated that Ukraine is trying to provoke a response and make Russia “mirror” its actions. Putin’s emphasis on past and ongoing missile strikes is likely an attempt to signal that Russia is already actively retaliating and does not need to respond to further Ukrainian provocations. These drone and missile attacks are more likely due to Russian forces’ inability to achieve any decisive effects on the battlefield.

When will the balloon go up?

ISW spot plenty of signals from Ukrainian officials that Ukrainian forces are prepared to start counter offensive operations. President Volodymyr Zelensky himself stated in a 3 June interview with the Wall Street Journal that Ukraine is ready to launch a counteroffensive. Zelensky remarked that Ukraine “would like to have certain things, but … can’t wait for months” to start counteroffensive operations. Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar also said on 3 June that “military plans love silence” and that she will “discuss something else” in the meantime, likely acknowledging that Ukrainian officials have started to more strictly enforce a regime of informational silence about operations in preparation for upcoming counter offensives. Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Ihor Klymenko stated on 3 June that Ukraine has formed all nine brigades of the “Offensive Guard” and that these formations are ready to take part in hostilities at Zelensky’s and Ukrainian Commander in Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi’s orders.

The weather has changed and the ground drying thus able to stand the weight of massed armour and making supply convoys less reliant on tarmac roads. Summer foliage provides better cover than winter. My hunch is that the Ukrainians may wait for their F 16s – but they’ll have them in the air much sooner than Putin calculates. Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi know they won’t have such a weakened and worn down Russian Army for some time.


Adrian Hill is a former paratroop officer and diplomat

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Adrian Hill