KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine is striking more boldly at targets deep in Russian territory because Kyiv has assessed that Moscow’s military is fighting at the limits of its conventional capabilities, former military officials and analysts say.
So far, the Ukrainian long-range attacks that hit airfields in the heart of Russia, along the Volga River, have not caused extensive damage. The latest, on Monday, killed three servicemen, Russia’s Defense Ministry said, after air defenses shot down a Ukrainian drone approaching Engels air base, near the city of Saratov.
But the attacks, which remain sensitive enough that the Ukrainian government has not publicly acknowledged them, have forced Russia to move planes, potentially complicating Moscow’s campaign of aiming cruise missile strikes at Ukraine’s energy grid.
Since some cruise missiles are launched from bombers that fly from the airfields hit in the attacks, the strikes could potentially destroy the missiles on the ground at the Russian airfields before they can be deployed.
With the sense widespread in Kyiv among officials and civilians that, short of nuclear intensification, Russia cannot do much more to Ukraine that it is not already doing, the allure of curtailing Moscow’s missile capabilities at home outweighs any escalatory concern.
“If somebody attacks you, you fight back,” Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister who now advises President Volodomyr Zelensky, said in an interview earlier this month, after the first Ukrainian long-range strike on Russian military targets hit Engels and another airfield in central Russia.
Mr. Zagorodnyuk, clarifying that he did not speak for the government and could not confirm the strikes, added: “You cannot consider, this person will attack you because you are fighting back. There is absolutely no strategic reason not to try to do this.”
Serhiy Hrabskiy, a retired colonel and commentator on the war for Ukrainian news media, said that Ukraine’s military has not hesitated to hit airfields, fuel tanks and ammunition depots that are legitimate military targets. Targeting sites in Crimea and cross-border artillery duels have become routine as the war has moved closer to Russia and the occupied peninsula.
“There is no reaction,” Mr. Hrabskiy said in an interview. “Why? Because the Russians simply do not have capacity to do so.”
The United States and Ukraine have agreed that Kyiv will not strike targets in Russia with American-provided weaponry. The Biden administration has vowed to avoid American involvement that could escalate to direct confrontation with Russia. But American officials clarified they will not object to Ukraine striking back with its own weaponry.
A Ukrainian state-owned military contractor has said it developed a long-range drone that would, theoretically, be able to hit Moscow. Russia said Ukraine used Soviet-era, jet-powered reconnaissance drones to hit air bases on Dec. 5.
“We are not working to prevent Ukraine from developing their own capability,” Lloyd J. Austin III, the Secretary of Defense, said after those strikes.
Ukraine’s long-range strikes have coincided with a depletion of Russian cruise and tactical ballistic missiles. After repeated forays on electrical power plans, substations and other infrastructure targets through the fall and early winter, Russia has enough missiles for two or three more waves of strikes on Ukraine’s electrical grid, Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, told the Ukrainian news outlet Liga.net in an interview published Monday.
Russia has been firing waves of 70 to 75 missiles in intervals of about a week, but the time between strikes has been growing.
“They will run out,” Mr. Budanov said.
The most sophisticated missile in Russia’s arsenal, the Kinzhal, a hypersonic weapon that can reach targets in minutes and is all but impossible to shoot down, is in even shorter supply, Mr. Budanov said.
Russia began its invasion with 47 Kinzhals in its arsenal, Mr. Budanov said, and has manufactured only “a few” more during the war.
“You can scare the world with the fact that you have a Kinzhal,” he said. “But when you start to really use them, what’s next?”
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