Original Author: Andrew E. Kramer and Victoria Kim
A wave of exploding drones was launched in six regions of Russia overnight Wednesday, Russian officials said, damaging four military cargo planes at an airfield 30 miles from the border with Estonia, a NATO member, in an apparent sign that Ukraine was increasingly capable of striking back deep inside Moscow’s territory.
Around the same time, Russia unleashed an aerial assault on at least three regions of Ukraine, officials in Ukraine said, including one of the most significant barrages the Kyiv region has experienced in months. Ukraine’s air force said it had shot down 43 of 44 incoming missiles and drones.
Explosions and the roar of air-defense missiles shook Kyiv, the capital, around 5 a.m. Serhiy Popko, head of the Kyiv regional military administration, said that two people in the city had been killed by falling debris.
The assault in Russia came after months of Moscow’s deadly missile and drone strikes on Ukrainian cities, infrastructure and military targets. While Ukrainian officials did not claim responsibility for the overnight strikes on Russian soil, in keeping with standard practice, they have made it increasingly clear that they view taking the war to ordinary Russians as a legitimate tactic against Moscow’s invasion.
“We all went through these attacks by Russia,” Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council, said in an interview on Wednesday. “We understand how destructive they can be. It’s important to be able to retaliate.”
The attacks in Russia have destroyed valuable military equipment, but have done little significant damage to Moscow’s overall military might. They are also intended to pierce Moscow’s propaganda by showing Russians that their military is vulnerable, experts say.
In what appeared to be the most successful strike on Wednesday, four Russian Il-76 military cargo planes were hit while parked near a runway in Pskov. The Russian regional governor, Mikhail Vedernikov, posted video footage on the Telegram messaging app of a large nighttime fire with smoke billowing from an airfield, and what appeared to be air defenses being fired at drones.
Mr. Vedernikov said drones had damaged the planes, although the extent was unclear. He later wrote that after a review of the airfield, “everything is in order” and that operations would resume there on Thursday.
Russia’s Defense Ministry did not address the attack in Pskov. But it said that at least eight Ukrainian drones had been intercepted over five regions south and southwest of Moscow. The drones were shot down in the Bryansk, Oryol, Kaluga and Ryazan regions, as well as in the Ruza district on the outskirts of the Moscow region, the ministry said.
Sergei Aksyonov, the top Russian-installed official in occupied Crimea, said on Wednesday on Telegram that Russian air defenses had shot down a cruise missile. An aide also added that the downing had ignited a small brush fire that was contained.
The Pskov region is home to a well-known Russian military paratrooper division that was implicated in last year’s massacre of civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha. To the west, the region borders Estonia and Latvia, both members of NATO.
American officials have said the drone attacks are intended to demonstrate to the Ukrainian public that Kyiv can still strike back, even as its counteroffensive to reclaim Russian-occupied territory in the south and east of the country moves at a grinding pace.
Kyiv’s long-range strikes also appear to be helping the morale of soldiers at the front. Serhiy, a marine fighting in southern Ukraine who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons, said that Ukraine was expanding the reach of its domestic weapons.
“The farther we can reach,” he said, “the quicker the Russians realize that we can do real harm.”
Ukraine has half a dozen or so models of long-range drones under development, including some that can fly more than 1,000 kilometers, or 620 miles, Ukrainian designers say. The Pskov region is more than 600 kilometers, or 400 miles, from the Ukrainian border.
“They launched a boomerang, and it will fly back to them,” Mr. Danylyuk said of the long-range missile and drone strikes. “Russians — not just in the Kremlin, not just on the border with Ukraine — all Russians need to understand that a war is taking place.”
A flurry of experimentation by Ukrainian drone manufacturers is now coming to fruition, Mr. Danylyuk added. He did not, however, claim Ukrainian responsibility for the overnight attack.
Drones have been hitting sites from which Moscow has launched attacks against Ukraine, including airfields and other military and logistics targets like oil depots, security headquarters and government offices.
The drones have also targeted a military factory in Russia where parts for missiles fired at Ukraine are manufactured. A Telegram channel, Mash, reported that one of the drones shot down over Bryansk fell on the Kremniy EL factory, one of the largest Russian microelectronics businesses, which is believed to manufacture chips for Iskander ballistic missiles, a type that has been used against Ukraine.
Ukraine first attacked Russian airfields along the Volga River, far from the border, late last year, with what were believed to be modified Soviet-era jet surveillance drones. The more recent attacks have used newly designed, propeller-driven exploding drones.
Drones have emerged as the signature technological advance of the Ukraine war, analysts say, including tiny rotor craft used along the front to drop hand grenades or for reconnaissance, and long-range fixed-wing craft that strike far from the front.
To achieve its aims, Ukraine has nurtured a start-up culture of dozens of tiny companies experimenting with new designs, some with colorful names like Punisher.
“We are witnessing a completely new type of warfare, maybe even a new theory of war, with the use of drones,” Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian minister of defense, said in an interview. “An inexpensive drone can hit a very expensive object,” such as the cargo planes on the Russian runways, he said. But he clarified that as he is out of government, he could not confirm any specific Ukrainian military strike.
“Russians are considering themselves completely invincible on their territory, because they know we cannot use Western equipment, because of our promises to the United States government,” Mr. Zagorodnyuk added.
Ukraine has relied instead on its homegrown drone designs.
“What we are seeing now,” he said, “are the first, early birds of a capability of striking deep in Russia.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Victoria Kim from Seoul. Marc Santora contributed reporting from Kyiv, Neil MacFarquhar from New York and Valeriya Safronova from Vienna, Austria.