Recent events suggest that Ukraine is fighting a deniable shadow war on Russian territory. It’s true: and in fact this war began almost as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine.
Reporting in Russia is subject to state control, but it’s difficult to keep people from noticing events such as large fires and explosions.
Within weeks of Russian troops crossing into Ukraine, such fires were raging and things were exploding on the Russian side of the border.
As early as April 2022, Ukrainian officials were denying that Kyiv was responsible for a fuel depot blaze near Belgorod, and suggesting that Russian separatists seeking to establish a “People’s Republic of Belgorod” might have started the conflagration.
Later that month the Russian border provinces of Belgorod, Bryansk, Kursk and Voronezh all raised their terror alert status.
Explosions, fires and power cuts began to ravage the border region.
As the summer arrived, Russia gave up on its disastrous attempts to take Kyiv and Kharkiv, and pulled its troops back onto its own territory all along the northern border. The defeated Russian forces mostly redeployed to the south to reinforce the invasion there.
This left more than 1,000km of Russia-Ukraine border, from Luhansk all the way up to Belarus, only very lightly defended by the Russians. It has been somewhat fortified, and is increasingly defended by minefields and patrolled by drones, but it remains permeable.
Ever since Russia retreated, its border provinces have been ablaze. The destruction is almost always reported in Russian media as being the results of cross-border shelling or airstrikes: but it is clear that there are teams of saboteurs operating across the border too.
It also seems plausible that there are at least some Ukrainian covert operatives and/or disaffected Russians working from inside the Motherland.
There has been sabotage in the railway systems of both Belarus and Russia. So-called “mystery fires” have been breaking out in Russia since the invasion, often far from the border areas. The Russian aerospace force research institute in Tver, northwest of Moscow, was gutted by fire in April 2022, with a number of people killed.
Another massive fire broke out the next day at an aerospace park, also near Moscow, and the following month there were fires and explosions in Moscow itself. In August, a Moscow car bombing killed Darya Dugin, daughter of Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin, an important Putin ally.
The mystery fires have kept on burning ever since.
Meanwhile back on the border the Ukrainians have grown steadily bolder. This March, reports made it into the Russian media of saboteurs in Bryansk, not merely planting explosives or starting fires, but engaging in gun battles with local law enforcement and “Rosgvardia” – internal security troops – and taking hostages. The shadow war was getting hotter.
Nerves of steel
What’s the aim of all this?
The somewhat deniable struggle inside Russia is strategically vital to the Ukrainians: it is designed to convince Putin to pull troops from the full-on war in southeastern Ukraine.
Success in this is probably a vital precondition for the long-discussed Ukrainian counter-offensive this year. It’s fairly well known that Zelensky and his generals, showing “nerves of steel” as one senior US officer recently put it, have managed to assemble a large striking force held in reserve.
The Ukrainian high command has resisted the temptation to pour in reinforcements during heavy fighting in Bakhmut and elsewhere, and has built up an uncommitted force of as many as 20 heavy brigades.
This Ukrainian force is well armed with Western tanks and other powerful weapons. It has well-trained and battle-hardened troops, who know they are fighting to free their fellow countrymen from the now well-known horrors of Russian occupation: random murder, rape, torture and mass disappearance into the gulags.
The strike force troops have had a break from the meat grinder combat of the front lines and will be motivated and ready to fight.
But they have a problem.
The western battle front is now along the lower Dnipro river, a major obstacle that is often many kilometres wide: essentially impassable for a swift-moving armoured attack.
The eastern front 50km south of Donetsk is also problematic as behind it lies the Russian border, where the Ukrainians have to stop but the Russians don’t.
The Ukrainian attack more or less has to come somewhere between Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, against the so-called “land bridge”, where a penetration of less than 100km would see the Ukrainian tanks on the shores of the Azov Sea.
If they could achieve that, they would have cut off the entire western half of the Russian invasion forces from almost all support other than that coming across the Kerch bridges to Crimea. The Ukrainians have managed to hit those bridges once already.
It would be a game-changing stroke, if it could be pulled off.
The trouble is that the Russians can read a map too and the relevant section of front is barely 150km long. Satellite photos show that the Russians have constructed several massive lines of fortifications there, and it’s obvious that Russian troops and artillery will be heavily concentrated in that area.
A chance of success
Breaching those lines will not be easy. To have any chance of success, the Ukrainians desperately need to draw every possible Russian soldier and piece of equipment they can out of the land bridge.
It may well be able to do that because Russia appears to have no strategic reserves.
“We now estimate 97pc of the Russian army, the whole Russian Army, is in Ukraine,” UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace told the BBC in February.
If Russia needs troops somewhere else, it will have to pull all or most of them from the battle front in Ukraine, which will probably mean at least some soldiers and equipment coming from the defence of the land bridge.
This is why the Ukrainians are so keen to create an impression that the exposed 1,000km+ of border to the north and east, along the Russian border provinces of Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk, needs to be defended by something more substantial than the FSB (the Federal Security Service) and the Rosgvardia.
Last month Belgorod province was invaded by a small force of armoured vehicles from Ukraine who occupied parts of the province for a couple of days.
The invaders claimed to be from the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion, not from the Ukrainian armed forces.
These groups were said to be made up of Russians opposed to Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said that they had acted of their own initiative.
It did appear that the Freedom of Russia Legion at least had some friends in Russia – or perhaps friends of friends – as during their incursion they posted videos of white-blue-white Russian opposition flags attached to balloons soaring into the skies above Moscow. The Legion uses the flag, as do anti-war protesters in Russia, and it is often taken as a symbol of opposition to the Putin regime.
Questioned as to where the supposed freedom fighters had got their heavy equipment, Podolyak cheekily answered: “As you know, tanks are sold at any Russian military store.”
This was widely taken as a riff on Vladimir Putin’s remarks in 2014, when “little green men” wearing Russian uniforms without insignia were prominent in the seizure of Crimea. The Kremlin’s line then was that these were local citizens who wanted to be part of Russia, not invading Russian troops. Putin said at the time: “You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.”
Ukrainians have again been talking about a “Belgorod People’s Republic”, referring to Russian annexation of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, when militias – often oddly heavily equipped, rather like the forces which mounted the Belgorod incursions – unilaterally declared independent “people’s republics” there.
Ukraine’s own militias were back across the border in Belgorod again last Friday, according to the Russians, in strength “comprising up to two motorised infantry companies, reinforced with tanks”.
Meanwhile on Monday night things moved up a gear. Explosions rocked Moscow as a fleet of drones attacked the city. The Russians claimed eight aircraft were involved, five of which were destroyed by Pantsir-S1 air-defence missiles and three by electronic warfare.
Well-connected Russian sources on social media said there had been 30 or more drones, and Muscovites told reporters of dozens of explosions.
At least some of the attacking drones could definitely have come all the way from Ukraine. Among the fleet were UJ-22s made by Ukrainian firm Ukrjet. The UJ-22 is basically an ordinary petrol-engined light aircraft with drone controls: it could have flown from the Ukrainian border to Moscow in around four hours.
Russian official announcements were at pains to state that Moscow’s air defences had worked well, though Vladimir Putin admitted there were problems.
“In general, it’s clear what needs to be done to increase the density of the capital’s air defence systems,” he said. “And we will do just that.”
The fact is that the attack was a horrifying embarrassment for the VKS, the Russian Aerospace Forces. Moscow is supposed to have the best and strongest air defences in Russia. When the vaunted new S-500 air defence missile came into service in 2021, the first regiment to get it was one assigned to protecting Moscow.
The S-500 and the preceding S-400 and S-300 are heavy, long-ranging systems designed to knock down aerial attackers at ranges of hundreds of kilometres. Their presence in any given place is often said to provide “Anti-Access/Area Denial” (A2/AD): it’s often suggested that S-300s and S-400s based in Kaliningrad, for instance, could prevent Nato air operations anywhere above Poland or the Baltics.
Russian state-owned news agency Tass has boasted: “The S-500 air defence system is designed to defeat all possible means of air and space attack by a potential enemy across the entire range of heights and speeds.”
A lot of doubt has now been cast on these ideas. Evidently there is some combination of height and speed, one achievable by a simple petrol-engined light aeroplane – an aircraft only a little faster than a car – that the S-500 and its earlier versions cannot cope with.
Only if the big missiles fail to bring down a target does the Pantsir, a last ditch “point defence” weapon, come into play: and even by the Russians’ account, the only missile able to engage the attacking drones was the Pantsir.
It has turned out in the defence of Kyiv that American-made Patriot heavy interceptors work well. It has turned out in the defence of Moscow that Russia’s mighty S-500 probably couldn’t stop a First World War biplane.
That’s being harsh in some ways. The Pantsir was actually built specifically because it was known that the S-300s and later would struggle to defeat low-flying attackers, no matter what Tass might claim.
This is because of the curvature of the Earth: a ground radar will not be able to detect a low-flying attacker until it comes above the horizon at say 50km. Thus the Pantsir was built in large part for the purpose of defending S-300 and above installations against things like attacking cruise missiles or low-flying jets.
Nonetheless this remains an almost unbelievably poor performance by the VKS. It should only have taken a dozen S-500 radars to provide overlapping encirclement of Moscow and detect incoming drones even at low level while still far from the capital.
A proper air defence effort, indeed, would have seen at least one Beriev A-50 airborne radar plane high above the city, giving it a horizon hundreds of kilometres away.
This could spot inbound drones and pass the targets to S-400 and -500 batteries even if their own radars could not see the intruders.
Some types of S-400 missile are supposed to be able to engage targets over the horizon from the launching battery using their own radar homing heads.
The Russians have publicly claimed that one such type has a 90pc chance to knock down even a fast, highly manoeuvrable jet aircraft in these circumstances.
In the event, even defending Moscow itself, this technology had a zero per cent success rate against the slowest kind of aeroplane there is, which was not manoeuvering at all.
Meanwhile, either the Beriev doesn’t work or none were available. That’s not a huge surprise as it’s thought that Russia only has nine A-50s in service. This has been suggested as a reason for the Russians’ poor air performance above Ukraine: that the Berievs were being kept back for air defence of the homeland. It now turns out that they aren’t available or effective for that either.
That aside, it’s also becoming clearer and clearer that the bold boasts of the Russians regarding their heavy anti-air missiles are not to be taken seriously, as with so much of their military.
So much for baseless Western fears of A2/AD in the Baltic.
However, key questions remain unanswered.
Is Ukraine’s shadow war working? How much have the Belgorod incursions and the Moscow drone attacks actually changed the picture? Will Vladimir Putin and his current Ukraine war commander, Valery Gerasimov, pull troops and equipment out of the land bridge and put them on the northern border? Will they bring back Pantsirs from the front to the Moscow defences, as Putin suggests?
Bluntly, probably not, if they’re smart. They know that Ukraine cannot mount any major combat action across the border.
Yes, it can send a handful of tanks: it probably still has some of its own original Soviet-made armour, and quite a lot more captured from the Russians. Such equipment can be deployed without breaking the agreements it has made with Western suppliers.
Hands are tied
But most Ukrainian artillery is now Western-supplied and, crucially, most of its remaining artillery shells will be Western by now. All of its long-range precision artillery is Western, and the great bulk of its air defence weaponry.
Ukraine’s hands are tied by its Western allies: it cannot operate seriously on Russian soil. Gerasimov and Putin can safely ignore pinpricks and raids along the border. They pose no military threat. Broken windows in Moscow are even less significant, militarily.
Nonetheless the shadow war might have a political effect. There is the hope, expressed by many, that internal pressure on Putin will build as a result of Ukraine’s actions: that the border provinces will demand effective defence, that pampered Muscovites will want a proper air umbrella.
But Russia is not a democracy. Putin and Gerasimov look set to sit tight and wait for the Ukrainians to charge into their carefully prepared killing ground.
Zelensky and his generals, if they’re smart, will not do that: or not in a hurry anyway. They’ll keep up their shadow war, hoping to build pressure on Putin and “shape the battle” more to their liking.
They’ll hope for more Western support: just a few key weapons, first among them the US-made ATACMS long-range precision missile, could win the war for them – or at least the battle for the land bridge, which would be a big step in that direction. Poland has the ATACMS, and would probably only need US permission to send it.
The one thing that might force Zelensky’s hand would be the prospect of a Donald Trump return to the White House in 2024. That might mean less US support or none at all unless Ukraine accepted terms agreed between Trump and Putin, which would probably look like defeat to Ukrainian eyes. A Trump win in 2024 might compel Zelensky to attack even against the odds.
Indeed, Zelensky’s war is already being controlled largely from Washington. It is the US insistence that Ukraine cannot use American weapons against Russia that compels the Ukrainians to attack into the land bridge trap, and which permits Russia to ignore 1,000km of its own border and concentrate its forces there to meet them.
People are still speculating that a frustrated Putin might choose to use nuclear weapons, perhaps tactical ones, on the battlefield in Ukraine. It’s not really clear that this would help him, however, and the US has made it very clear that it would respond with overwhelming conventional force in that case.
It was always obvious that US conventional forces, if they chose to act directly, could cripple Russia’s war effort in a very short space of time, and the lamentable performance of the VKS in defending Moscow has only made that more obvious.
The truth is, of course, that Putin’s nuclear arsenal is already in use and proving highly effective. It is projecting fear into the White House and so forcing Ukraine to fight with its hands tied.
If Zelensky could send a real armoured assault into Belgorod he could either draw away defenders from the land bridge or perhaps outflank and roll up a big part of the main Russian line inside Ukraine. But he can’t: because Putin’s nuclear threats are working well against the Biden administration.
“The language of escalation is the language of excuse,” as Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba puts it.
Trump and Biden might both take note of what’s being called the “America first” argument for helping the Ukrainians win. The idea here is that the Ukrainians are doing the West in general and America in particular a huge favour – rather than the other way round.
Kori Schake, senior defence analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, perhaps put it best in a recent interview with CNN: “For about 5pc of US defence spending last year, and zero American military casualties, the Ukrainians are destroying the Russian military. And that is absolutely in America’s interests.”
Looked at that way, Western military aid to Ukraine is an excellent investment: we should clearly be sending more of it.