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Surprise drone attacks hint at how Ukraine is going after Russia's missile 'chokepoints'

Iskander missile
Russian troops with an Iskander missile at an event outside of Moscow in June 2015.Reuters
  • While its military struggles on the ground in Ukraine, Russia has leaned heavily on aerial attacks.

  • Waves of Russian drones and missiles have taxed Ukraine's already strained air-defense network.

  • In response, Ukraine appears to be targeting Russia's missile launchers to interrupt their attacks.

As Russian missiles continue to pound Ukrainian cities, the Ukrainians are using drones to target Russian missile launchers.

Ukraine has struck airbases inside Russia that service missile-armed bombers. It has also hit bases on the Crimean Peninsula that support the Black Sea Fleet and its missile-equipped warships.

Ukraine's strategy is spurred by desperation. While its air defenses have been successful, they can't destroy every incoming cruise and ballistic missile, let alone high-speed hypersonic weapons. Indeed, not even Israel's vaunted Iron Dome, which Kyiv has requested, can destroy more than a fraction of incoming rockets.

Compounding the problem is that Ukraine may be close to running out of anti-aircraft missiles and shells.

Russian missiles and shells in Kharkiv Ukraine
Remnants of Russian missiles and shells at a Ukrainian collection site in Kharkiv in December.Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Whether it's cruise missiles or ICBMs, it's much easier to destroy the missiles, their launchers, and their supply depots on the ground than it is to intercept them in flight.

Attacking those launchers "is a more efficient way" to deal with the problem, Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the RAND Corporation think-tank, said on an April episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast.

Ukraine's strikes are hitting bases and hubs that may disrupt Russia's ability to launch missiles, whether it be from bombers flying along the Russia-Ukraine border or from the ships of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which continue to launch Kalibr cruise missiles at targets in Ukraine.

The Black Sea Fleet has been reinforced by ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla, which arrived through a canal connecting the seas.

Since Russia's invasion in February 2022, its warships from elsewhere, such as the Northern Fleet, have been unable to enter the Black Sea due to Turkey's invocation of the Montreux Convention, which bars warships from transiting the Turkish Straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

People on a beach as smoke and flames rise after explosions at a Russian military airbase, in Novofedorivka, Crimea August 9, 2022.
Beach-goers watch smoke and flames rise after explosions at a Russian military airbase in Crimea in August.REUTERS/Stringer

"The Black Sea Fleet is a major chokepoint," Massicot said, and if Russian ships there "are disabled or neutralized in some way where they can no longer launch Kalibrs, Russia cannot bring in additional naval assets."

Though the Black Sea Fleet has been able to blockade Ukrainian ports, Ukraine has scored significant victories against it. The cruiser Moskva, the fleet's flagship, was sunk by Ukrainian land-based anti-ship missiles in April 2022. Ukraine has also hit port facilities that sustain the Black Sea Fleet. In April, Ukrainian drones set ablaze a major fuel depot at the big Crimean naval base of Sevastopol.

After the Moskva was sunk, the frigate Admiral Makarov became the fleet's flagship. In October, it was damaged by unmanned Ukrainian kamikaze boats — a novel form of attack that caused limited damage but still required Russia to respond to a new threat.

Airbases inside Russia have also been attacked. In December, Ukrainian drones blasted two air bases east of Moscow — hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border. The strikes, while limited, were especially significant because the bases housed Tu-160s and Tu-95s, Russia's nuclear-capable long-range bombers.

Russia Saki airbase in Crimea
A satellite image of Saki airbase in Russian-occupied Crimea in April 2021Maxar Technologies via Getty Images

Ukraine has also used a variety of weapons — from Soviet-era drones to US-made HIMARS guided rockets — in strikes on Russian ammunition supplies. "There have been attacks on different routes to deliver munitions to the frontline," Massicot said.

Ukraine is waging a textbook example of asymmetric warfare. Though weaker than Russia in numbers, it is using innovative techniques, such as homemade drones, to even the balance.

But Russia is adapting. Ammunition depots once carelessly placed close to the frontlines have been moved out of range of Ukrainian artillery. Aircraft have also been relocated. "They have a lot of air bases, and they're pulling some of these assets back," Massicot said.

The price of these countermeasures is inefficiency in delivering supplies. By forcing Russia to make that change, Ukraine's strategy can be deemed a success, but those benefits won't last forever.

"The Russians learn from those experiences," Massicot added. "Perhaps a little slowly, but they eventually learn."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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