Ukraine on August 29th launched its most massive drone attack on Russian territory including an attack on Pskov airfield near the Estonian border. At Pskov at least two Il-76 jet transport aircraft were destroyed, perhaps as many as four.
The Il-76 is a large multi-purpose, fixed-wing, four-engine turbofan strategic airlifter that also can be configured for special missions. It is a workhorse of the Russian Air Force, used to transport troops and supplies. These aircraft have been produced since 1971 and are still manufactured. The Il-76 is also operated by civilian organizations in Russia and abroad. The aircraft in various versions has been sold to more than a dozen foreign operators.
The significance of the attack on Pskov is the location of the airfield in northwestern Russia. It is 38.1 miles (61.3 km) from the Estonian border post Luhamaa. Pskov is some 500 miles (800 km) from Ukrainian territory, which has raised serious questions about where the drone or drones came from in the attack on Pskov.
For a drone to operate at long range it needs special communications capabilities. US drones including the RQ-4 Global Hawk, the RQ-1/MQ-1 Reaper and the RQ-170 Sentinel use satellite communications and radio relays. Drones such as the Reaper carry air to ground missiles and are equipped with very sophisticated radars and electro-optical gear. Ukraine does not have drones like these.
The Russians think that the drone launched on Pskov came either from a clandestine launch on Russian or Belarus territory or from Estonia. There have been other attacks deep in Russian territory that suggest drones were smuggled into Russia, even close to Moscow. The Ukrainians have also carried out sabotage operations on Russian territory, often involving Russian citizens, just as they also have done in Russian occupied territory in Ukraine. The Russian press provides almost no information about attacks inside Russia unless they catch the perpetrators, which occasionally happens. However, social media outlets do provide photos and videos of locations in Russia that have been hit. Some sabotage is aimed at military targets, but there are plenty of targets such as office buildings, shopping malls, and warehouses. Internal security in Russia seems incapable of stopping or even reducing the frequency of sabotage operations.
Drone attacks and sabotage are not going to significantly change the trajectory of the war on Ukrainian territory. Instead it seems the Ukrainian objective is to sow discord in Russia and demonstrate that Russia’s defenses are porous and the authorities in Russia are not capable of protecting key assets in the country. In addition, Ukraine wants to demonstrate that there is serious opposition to Putin’s government, thus the use of Russian citizens for provocations.
Ukraine’s attacks on Russia also are intended as a quid pro quo for Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Just as the Ukrainians launched their heaviest drone attack on Russia on the 29th, the Russians carried out a heavy bombardment of Kiev.
There are a number of risks in Ukraine’s drone and sabotage operations which may concern Ukraine’s NATO partners. Striking near a vulnerable NATO country, such as the Pskov attack, could trigger an across border response that could spark a bigger conflict. Russia, itself, took a big risk when it hit Ukraine’s Izmail (Izmayil) grain depot and port on the Danube recently. Romania is just across the river.
The Russians will, no doubt, step up their efforts to improve domestic security and add additional defensive systems to deal with drone attacks.
However, Ukraine has to be careful in its choice of targets inside Russia, in particular Ukraine has to stay away from installations where nuclear weapons are stored or where Russian strategic aircraft are located, and it must be careful about attacks the Russian may interpret as coming directly from NATO members. A mistake could instantly transform the Ukraine war into a NATO-wide war, something NATO is unprepared to handle.