Moscow Seeks to Aggravate Western Concerns About Long-Distance Ukrainian Strikes

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 84

(Source: Belgorod Region Branch of the Russian Emergencies Ministry)

Executive Summary:

  • The Kremlin is trying to impede any Western resolve in allowing long-distance Ukrainian strikes on military targets within Russia to avoid destabilizing energy infrastructure and disrupting the lives of everyday Russians.
  • Moscow uses the fear of escalation and nuclear saber-rattling to inflame worries within Western populations of a possible widening of the conflict.
  • Sustained Western solidarity with Ukraine will almost inevitably translate into a breakthrough, canceling all of Russia’s illegitimate territorial “acquisitions.”

Moscow sees each sign of discord in the Western coalition supporting Ukraine as a strategic opportunity, and the ongoing disagreements about using granted weapon systems for long-distance strikes inside Russian territory are perceived as particularly rich. President Vladimir Putin found it opportune to remind “small and densely populated states” about their vulnerability, and mainstream pundits invented new arguments in favor of a demonstrative nuclear explosion (TASS, May 28; RIAC, May 29). The warnings about a looming clash between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia might appear exaggerated. From the Russian perspective, there is no difference between Ukrainian strikes on the Kerch Bridge and on the oil refineries in Novorossiysk, as the illegally annexed Crimea and four occupied Ukrainian regions are “constitutionally” part of the Russian Federation. Moscow, nevertheless, fears that a full green light from Kyiv’s Western supporters would mean further disruptions in its energy infrastructure and exports. The Kremlin is thus seeking to drum up concerns in the hopes of preventing a united position.

The escalated rhetoric is aimed at several political targets. One is the need to camouflage the strategic blunder of launching a new offensive toward Kharkiv, which has failed to establish the “cordon sanitaire,” or buffer zone, as Putin claimed during his recent visit to China (see EDM, May 6; Izvestiya, May 17). Russian attacks have compelled Ukraine to deploy reserves designated for the southern front. Yet, every offensive requires building a strong grouping at the expense of other directions, and the simultaneous Russian attacks on Chasiv Yar in Donbas have failed to gain ground (, May 26). The political resonance to the new offensive, nevertheless, has been so heavy that in late May, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg asserted that Ukraine had the right to hit legitimate targets inside Russia with every kind of weapon (RBC, May 27). The Joe Biden administration found it imperative to grant Ukraine permission to use the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) batteries and other weapons for strikes on Russian troops across the border from the Kharkiv region (Meduza, May 31).

Another Russian aim goes beyond the usual attempts to split Western solidarity by resorting to nuclear brinkmanship (see EDM, April 30, May 9, 23; Izvestiya, May 31). The intention now is to amplify the fracas of domestic debates in the United States and present the caution prevalent in the White House as a failure of US leadership (Kommersant, May 31). Washington’s ambivalent stance has been illustrated by the expressed concerns about Ukrainian strikes on Russian strategic early warning radars in Armavir, Krasnodar krai, and Orsk in the Orenburg region (Nezavismaya gazeta, May 30). These worries ring similar to US reservations against drone attacks on Russian oil refineries, which Ukraine has resolutely dismissed to continue its campaign of curtailing fuel supply for Moscow’s war machine (see EDM, April 18, 24; The Moscow Times, May 31).   

The debates between NATO foreign ministers last week may be political in nature. For the Russian top brass, however, the primary issue is not the formal permission to execute long-distance strikes but the targeting capabilities only the United States can provide (Kommersant, May 31). Delivering a hit on a large stationary target, such as the Voronezh-DM phased array radar near Armavir, is relatively easy, but troop concentrations must be monitored in real-time by satellite assets (The Insider, May 30). The success of the recent Ukrainian missile strike on the Belbek airbase near Sevastopol was ensured by data on the precise locations of MiG-31 and Su-27 aircraft on the tarmac (, May 17). Some earlier Ukrainian drone attacks on the Belgorod region were low precision and resulted in civilian casualties. Now, Western technology allows for Russian troop bases and logistics to be targeted with greater accuracy (Meduza, May 17).

Another intention of the Russian outcry against Western consent for long-distance Ukrainian strikes is to consolidate common ground with China (Valdai Discussion Club, May 30). Beijing has expressed reservations against playing with the risks of nuclear escalation, and Moscow hopes that an accentuated condemnation of alleged NATO “aggressiveness” will help alleviate these disapprovals and overcome difficulties in expanding trade caused by Western sanctions (, May 17; Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 26). An immediate goal is to dissuade Beijing from sending a delegation to the peace summit in Bürgenstock, Switzerland, scheduled for June 15 and 16. Moscow propagandists are announcing that China’s no-show means the summit is already a failure (RIA Novosti, June 1).

This furious diplomatic offensive betrays Russia’s profound concerns about the impact of the long-prepared gathering on the choices of many states in the Global South. Many of these countries tend to put their parochial interests first but are not entirely indifferent to the just peace argument. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again advanced that plan at the Shangri-La forum in Singapore (Svoboda, June 1). If China does not send representatives to the high-profile event in Switzerland, more political space might open for other potential initiators of peace talks, including Saudi Arabia–though Riyadh has declined the invite to Switzerland (The Insider, May 31; Ukrainska Pravda, June 2).

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is clearly interested in promoting his own peace initiative while still expecting confirmation from the Kremlin regarding Putin’s long-promised visit to Ankara (Rossiiskaya gazeta, May 30). Erdogan’s own visit to Washington is on hold as Türkiye seeks to keep a low profile in the NATO debates on long-distance strikes into Russia while steadily expanding military-technical cooperation with Ukraine (Novaya Gazeta Europe, May 30).

From the outset of the full-scale invasion, Russia has tried to portray its aggression against Ukraine as an existential confrontation with the inherently hostile West. Each step of NATO members, whether individual or collective, in expanding support for Kyiv is followed by a clamor in Moscow about the risk of escalation. This strategic blackmail connects with various Western audiences affected by and tired of the “long war.” Ukraine, nevertheless, has excelled at erasing Russian false “red lines” and making Moscow pay a steadily increasing price for its war. Putin’s bragging about the “reality on the ground” is undercut by every Ukrainian hit on an airbase or oil refinery, and the effectiveness of this attrition is set to increase in the coming months with the deployment of F-16 fighter squadrons. Sustained Western solidarity with Ukraine will almost inevitably translate into a breakthrough, canceling all Russian illegitimate territorial “acquisitions.”