Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military philosopher, was rarely studied in Soviet military academies, but the Ukrainian high command—seeking to “win first and start fighting after”—appears to be taking a page out of his treatise, The Art of War. Naturally, the intentions for a spring offensive have now become a plan for a summer offensive; even so, the time in between was not wasted. Every day, a new tactical strike is delivered where it is the least expected, adding to the demoralization of Russian forces and the confusion of the top brass. Some of these strikes are merely psychological operations; others—such as the naval drone attack on the Ivan Khurs intelligence collection ship in the Black Sea—while not wholly successful (in the case of the Ivan Khurs, the vessel is still operational), the sum total of such activities underlines a progressive failure of Russian deterrence posturing (Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, June 1).
In May 2023, the drone strike on the Kremlin appeared to be a daring stunt aimed at spoiling the elaborate Victory Day parade and forcing President Vladimir Putin to pretend to be unworried (The Insider, May 15). The follow-up attack on May 30, however, left Putin visibly upset, and his terse praise of the effectiveness of Moscow’s air defense system sounded similar to a reprimand (Carnegie Politika, May 30). No material damage was inflicted, or even intended, and the Muscovites found ironic consolation in the fact that the main targets were Putin’s residence in Novo-Ogaryovo and the suburban village of elite mansions known as “Rublevka” (Svoboda, May 31). The intent behind this inexpensive but impactful operation is clear: to compel the Russian command to commit more tactical air defense systems, such as the Pantsir-S1M, to protecting Moscow, rather than deploying them in the combat area (Meduza, June 2).
The same strategic purpose underpins the incursions by well-armed paramilitary troops into the Belgorod region. The surprise attack on May 22 was followed by a less-determined operation on June 1, against which the Russian command had to deploy artillery and air power (Rossiiskaya gazeta, June 1). Responsibility for these raids has been claimed by Russian volunteer groups, which have opted to fight on the Ukrainian side; however, according to the official reporting in Moscow, the adversary is invariably described as the Ukrainian army (RBC, June 2). Putin immediately decorated the “heroes” who repelled the attack; nevertheless, his orders to strengthen border defenses and to proceed with the offensive push toward Maryinka in the Donbas theater are clearly at cross-purposes (Izvestiya, June 2). Three Russian front-line regions—Bryansk, Kursk and Belgorod—are increasingly coming under Ukrainian attacks and strikes, some of which are quite indiscriminate, and the Russian command must now allocate greater resources toward the task of countering a no longer improbable full-scale enemy offensive in this vulnerable direction (Novayagazeta.eu, June 2).
These prospects have yet to produce any “patriotic” mobilization in Russian society, where resignation and compliance still dominate, as worries and anxieties grow (The Moscow Times, May 30). There are, nevertheless, direct military consequences from the increasingly long-distance Ukrainian strikes. One is the forced redeployment of the Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers from Engels air base in the Saratov region, which repeatedly came under drone attacks, to Olenya air base in the Murmansk region, where maintenance facilities are rather basic (Topwar.ru, May 14). Another has been the interruptions to Russian forces’ fuel supply caused by repeated strikes on oil refineries in the Krasnodar region (RBC, May 31). More powerful strikes have been delivered on targets inside the occupied territories, such as the Port of Berdyansk, with such high precision that the usual suspect is the British-supplied Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile (RIA Novosti, June 2). It is uncertain whether these missiles are already operational, but the resourcefulness of Ukrainian industry in developing and delivering several types of long-distance drones stands in contrast with the inability of the Russian defense-industrial complex to produce even such crude models as the Iran-supplied Shahed-136 (The Moscow Times, June 1).
This remarkable edge in industrial capacity makes it possible for Ukraine to rely entirely on homemade drones in conducting long-distance strikes inside Russia, which is politically important to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s relentless campaign for expanding Western military support (Novayagazeta.eu, May 30). His key priority is to encourage a coalition of willing European states committed to providing Ukraine with several squadrons of F-16 fighters, and the Ukrainian president is perfectly aware of their sensitivities regarding the escalation of the war as well as the United States’ reluctance to lead this coalition (New Voice of Ukraine, June 2). Meanwhile, Kyiv seeks to establish that combat operations cannot be limited to trenches in the Donbas, as every exchange of fire in the Kharkiv region inevitably involves the cross-border use of artillery supplied by the West (Republic.ru, June 1).
Zelenskyy’s larger priority is charting the road for Ukraine’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and he aims to ensure significant progress on this at the NATO Vilnius summit in mid-July 2023 (Kommersant, June 1). For that, he needs to find a way to counter the argument that Ukraine cannot be invited to join the Alliance in the middle of a war, and every strike deep into Russia reinforces his point that a victory can be achieved in a matter of months, not years (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 31). Kyiv persists that talks about a peace plan must take into consideration the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the symbolic drone hit on Moscow provided a reminder of this for the gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Oslo, Norway, last week (Forbes.ru, June 2).
For the past few weeks, air alarms have wailed in Kyiv nearly every night, but missile defenses shield the city assiduously; thus, Russia has been denied its intention to respond forcefully to the daring Ukrainian strikes and raids. Speculations about hypothetical “red lines” have been extinguished by the plain fact of Russia’s inability to inflict meaningful damage to the Ukrainian reserves readying for the series of counteroffensive operations, and the attempts at “exacting punishment” through the indiscriminate shelling of Kharkiv and Dnipro only illuminate the continued degradation of the Russian war machine. Ukrainian determination to expel the aggressor from every inch of its land is coming progressively together with the Western resolve to grant it all means necessary for this victory, which means Russia keeps losing the war even without experiencing another setback on the battlefield. Indeed, the shadow of defeat is growing darker for the Kremlin, and its strategy for prolonging the disaster is set to be proven as flawed.