At dawn on Thursday (May 19), an ethanol plant in the Russian village of Tyotkino, in Kursk Oblast, near the Ukrainian border, came under artillery fire for the second day in a row. One person died in the attack (TASS, May 19). On Wednesday, the villages of Solokhi and Bezymeno, in neighboring Belgorod Oblast, were also shelled; one injury was reported (TASS, May 18).
Artillery and rockets hit targets in Russia’s border oblasts of Kursk, Belgorod, Bryansk and Voronezh on an almost regular basis. The first such blow was struck a month after the beginning of the war: on March 29, an ammunition depot in the Belgorod Oblast village of Krasny Oktyabr was blown up (Interfax, March 29). Eight people were wounded and 21 vehicles were destroyed. Two days later, a pair of MI-24 helicopters assaulted and set fire to a fuel depot in Belgorod city itself (RIA Novosti, April 1).
On April 25, a fuel depot in Bryansk caught fire (Vesti, April 25); and on April 27, there was a fire at an ammunition depot in the Belgorod region, about 30 kilometers from the border with Ukraine (Kommersant, April 27). That same night, residents of Kursk heard explosions, most likely from air-defense strikes (RBC, April 27). On the night of May 2, which is a public holiday in Russia, residents of Belgorod heard detonations and also saw an unidentified military aircraft in the sky (Avia.pro, May 2). Since then, at least 25 eruptions, blazes, airborne explosions, artillery bombardments, and ground attacks with the use of rocket-propelled grenades have been reported. It is estimated that at least 10,000 tons of fuel were burned in the apparent attacks on fuel depots alone.
From a military standpoint, the available evidence and strategic considerations point strongly to the Ukrainian Armed Forces as the culprits behind all of this destruction and damage. The southwestern regions of Russia are dotted with ammunition and fuel depots. They are links in supply chains provisioning the Russian army fighting in Donbas; and military bases there are used to man the regiments before sending them to Ukraine.
Politically, however, these attacks represent one of the mysteries of this war, the answer to which may provide answers to some important political questions.
Ukrainian officials initially tried to deny any responsibility for these actions. On April 1, Alexei Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, stated that Ukraine was not involved in the shelling of a fuel depot in the Belgorod region (Focus.ua, April 1). Later, Kyiv adopted a “no comment” position, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s advisor Mikhail Podolyak only said obliquely that “karma is a cruel thing” (UNIAN, April 27). Zelenskyy, in an interview with Fox News, refused to address these events: “Sorry, I do not discuss any of my orders as commander-in-chief or leader of the state” (Fox News, May 4).
The only informed person willing to comment seemed to be the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who, in an interview with Talk TV said, “The Ukrainians obviously […] have a right to defend themselves. They are being attacked from Russian territory […] they have the right to defend themselves and protect themselves” (BBC News, April 26).
Kyiv’s caution is understandable: the West, which supplies weapons to Ukraine, does not want the war to extend beyond its borders, since this could eventually force the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to become more directly involved.
However, the main mystery is Russia’s muted response to the attacks. After the first explosions at the ammunition depot in Belgorod, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov attributed them to an accidental fire (Interfax, March 30). Only a week later, the Russians officially claimed that they were the result of a Ukrainian attack involving three Tochka-U tactical ballistic missiles (Sledcom.ru, April 7). Since then, Russian media reports have been highly ambiguous: in cases of direct artillery shelling and sabotage, officials blame Ukraine, while aerial attacks are usually denied or explained as “air-defense work” against drones.
The Russian national media does not always report the attacks, and they are not discussed in propaganda television programs. Officials also barely mention them. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented only twice; both times he was brief and re-addressed questions to the Ministry of Defense (Interfax, April 1, May 12).
This seems paradoxical. President Vladimir Putin started the current war essentially without a legal justification. His only explanation was the hypothetical threat Ukraine might pose to Russia if it joined NATO. Now, acts of aggression against Russian territory could easily be taken as a casus belli. In fact, it is the first time since 1944, when Russian territory has been attacked by an enemy.
After the first attacks, the West thought Putin might use these facts to officially declare war—so far, the Kremlin refers to the conflict in Ukraine only as a “special military operation,” and it is illegal to even call it “war.” A declaration of war would make it possible to declare a general mobilization, which numerous experts consider necessary in light of the Russian military’s heavy casualties in Ukraine. But Putin is not doing that. And of all the possible reasons, one is most likely.
Namely, mobilization could trigger a NATO response, and Putin and his generals, despite their belligerent rhetoric, fear the North Atlantic Alliance. The war has shown what irreparable damage can be inflicted on the Russian Armed Forces even by a smaller opponent, like Ukraine, so long as it wields a 21st century military. Russia, in contrast, broadly retains a 20th century force. Its collision with NATO, therefore, would probably be a decidedly one-sided affair.
The only trump card in the Kremlin’s deck is nuclear weapons, but with every passing day, Russian talk of nuclear warheads increasingly reveals itself to be a bluff. The use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine is out of the question. Because of geographical proximity, the radiological consequences for Russia and Belarus would be as bad as for Ukraine. Whereas, Putin surely understands, the use of nuclear weapons against the US or its allies would threaten to trigger “Mutually Assured Destruction.”
In the West, Putin is often portrayed as an irrational, unpredictable leader, with many experts and politicians even publicly calling him “crazy.” Indeed, playing the dangerous madman is an old game that has benefited many dictators—for example, North Korean, Iranian or Venezuelan leaders. But it is only a game. And it remains to be seen how long the public will stay impressed by it.