Last week, Ukraine took the war to Russia in a small but symbolic way. Ukraine reportedly used jet drones to strike two air bases deep in Russia — one of them only 100 miles from Moscow — that are used to operate the long-range bombers that launch missiles against Ukrainian cities. According to the Kremlin, one of the attacks slightly damaged two airplanes and killed three servicemembers. The next day, another Ukrainian drone attack reportedly ignited a fuel-storage facility in the Russian city of Kursk. Kyiv was typically cagey about what happened: Borrowing a page from the Israeli playbook when discussing sensitive operations, officials neither confirm nor deny on the record, but with winks and nudges make clear that they are responsible.
While these are the deepest attacks inside Russia that Ukraine has yet carried out, they are hardly the first. In early April, there were reports that a Ukrainian Tochka ballistic missile had hit a military depot in the Russian city of Belgorod near the Ukrainian border and that Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopter gunships had sneaked over the border to ignite a fuel depot in Belgorod. U.S. intelligence even leaked word that Ukrainian operatives were responsible for the car bomb in August near Moscow that killed the daughter of Russian ultra-nationalist Alexander Dugin.
There have also been a number of spectacular Ukrainian attacks on Russian military installations in Crimea — Ukrainian territory that Vladimir Putin has illegally annexed. In August, explosions at the Saki air base in Crimea destroyed nine Russian warplanes; Ukrainian officials told The Post that their special forces were responsible. The Kerch Strait Bridge linking Crimea to Russia — one of Putin’s showcase projects — was badly damaged by an explosion on Oct. 8 apparently caused by a truck bomb. And on Oct. 29, Ukraine used sea drones to attack the Russian Black Sea fleet at its anchorage in Sevastopol, apparently damaging at least one warship. (In April, Ukraine sank the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the cruiser Moskva, at sea with anti-ship missiles.)
Some of these strikes are militarily significant, others are merely symbolic. But even symbolism can be important. Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the CNA think tank, compared last week’s strikes on two Russian airfields to the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942. Although the U.S. bombers caused little damage, they demonstrated that Japan was not immune from attack and rallied U.S. public opinion a few months after Pearl Harbor. Today, Ukrainians shivering in the cold and dark because of Russian attacks on the electrical grid must be heartened to see their military striking back.
Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
The Ukrainian attacks naturally raise concerns in the West about provoking Putin. The Biden administration has made clear that Ukraine is not using U.S. equipment for attacks on Russian soil, and indeed it has refused to provide Ukraine with longer-range weapons for fear that they would be used deep inside Russia. (One administration official told me that if the Ukrainians got F-16s, they could bomb Moscow.)
“We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week. But he did not condemn the attacks. The U.S. position seems to be that if U.S. weapons systems aren’t employed, and the attacks are focused strictly on military targets, it doesn’t object to the attacks.
That’s a reasonable position — but, as I’ve argued before, the Biden administration is too restrictive in the types of weapons it provides Ukraine. The U.S. Air Force wants to send roughly 50 older model Reaper drones — which can fire Hellfire antitank missiles — to Ukraine because it doesn’t need them anymore. But the request has languished for months in the Pentagon bureaucracy.
Likewise, the Biden administration refuses to provide the ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) to Ukraine and has even modified HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) launchers so that they cannot fire ATACMS rockets, which would increase their range from 50 miles to as many as 180 miles. U.S. fighter-bombers such as the F-16, which the Ukrainians have been requesting, are also off the table.
I can understand the administration not wanting U.S. weapons to be used for attacks on Russian soil, but the Zelensky government has proved to be a reliable partner that has abided by U.S. restrictions. Moreover, the most valuable targets for longer-range strikes are in Ukraine, not Russia.
The Ukrainian military has enabled successful offensives around both Kharkiv in the east and Kherson in the south by targeting Russian headquarters, supply lines and ammunition depots to wear down enemy forces. Gaining access to longer-range “fires” will enable the Ukrainians to more effectively strike such military targets across the width and breadth of Russian-occupied territory. That includes Crimea, which remains out of HIMARS range. Such strikes, in turn, will enable future offensives that can bring this awful war to a conclusion.
The United States shouldn’t enable attacks against targets in Russia. But it should definitely enable more effective Ukrainian strikes on Russian supply lines and bases all over occupied Ukraine.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.