Drone Attacks on Russia Show Evidence of Ukraine’s Other Counteroffensive

by Pelican Press
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At least three different Ukrainian-made drones have been used in attacks inside Russia, including Moscow, according to an analysis by The New York Times, indicating a Ukrainian role in strikes that the government in Kyiv has long shrouded in mystery.

Ukrainian officials have declined to claim or deny responsibility for drone strikes on Russian territory. But the three drone models, which appear capable of flying hundreds of miles from Ukraine to Moscow, were used in strikes in Russia.

The Times analysis, based on flight footage, images of prototypes and wreckage on the ground, as well as interviews with experts and officials, also found that Ukraine is racing to scale up its homegrown drone fleet, and to attack more frequently in Russia.

Public glimpses of Ukraine’s long-range drone industry are rare: One of the few appeared months ago, in the profile of a popular 23-year-old Ukrainian influencer who had been raising money for the war effort.

In late December, the influencer, Ihor Lachenkov, got an unexpected phone call from officials with Ukraine’s military intelligence service, known as the G.U.R. They asked him for help funding the production of a “drone that can fly very far,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Lachenkov and his million followers on Telegram were able to raise 20 million hryvnia, or about half a million dollars, to help build what he called a “Ukrainian kamikaze drone.” He said in a post, “The amount is not small, but the result will be powerful.”

Five months later — and just a week after an audacious May 3 drone attack on the Kremlin — Mr. Lachenkov thanked his followers for reaching their fund-raising goal. He attached three photos of himself next to a previously unseen drone, which he called the Bober.

In a fourth photo, he stood with Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the military intelligence agency. He held a gift from Mr. Budanov: a painted artillery shell showing a drone dropping two bombs on the Kremlin.

Ihor Lachenkov, a Ukrainian influencer, posing with the Bober, a kamikaze attack drone he raised funds for.Credit…Ihor Lachenkov, via Telegram

The three drones identified by The Times — the Bober, the UJ-22 Airborne and a third model with an undetermined name — have all been used to hit targets in Russia, including Moscow, and the attacks have been increasing, based on a tally by The Times of geolocated visuals and local reports. The number of kamikaze drones flown into Russia between May and July was double the total for all of 2022.

In Moscow alone, there have been six strikes since the May 3 attack on the Kremlin, including one on Sunday, in the city’s financial district. The drones identified by The Times have been directly linked to three of these attacks, on May 30, July 24 and July 30, and may have played a role in the others as well.

Determining whether an attack is successful is difficult. Russia claims it has shot down or diverted the drones targeting Moscow, and has reported no casualties.

Several of the attacks damaged buildings in the capital, including some just hundreds of feet from Russia’s Ministry of Defense. Though Ukraine’s goal in urban areas, so far, appears more about instilling fear than causing bloodshed or large-scale destruction, aftermath footage of several attacks on oil depots shows structures engulfed in flames, suggesting significant damage.

Ukraine’s efforts to build long-range kamikaze drones come as Russia itself has been launching swarms of Iranian-made explosive drones into Ukraine’s capital and other cities.

Ukraine’s defense industry partially depends on private funding and donations, including from the likes of Mr. Lachenkov, to develop prototypes and scale production. The Ukrainian government is also creating incentives for the industry by giving private companies a larger margin of profit on drones they produce. One of those firms, the Ukraine-based Ukrjet, is behind the UJ-22.

Andrii Yusov, a G.U.R. spokesman, said in an interview that Ukraine reserves the right to launch operations inside Russia as long as its troops occupy Ukrainian territory.

“None of the representatives of the occupation army and occupation regime, at any point in any corner of its state, can feel safe while an aggressive, insatiable war is being fought against Ukraine,” he said.

Several videos posted of the May 30 and July 24 attacks show at least one boxier-looking Bober, named for the Ukrainian word for beaver, flying in the skies above and around Moscow.

To the naked eye the drone — which has what’s known as a “push” airframe — almost appears to be flying backward as a result of two features: a small second wingspan, called a canard, at the nose of the drone, and a propeller at the back instead of the front.

The type of design Ukraine is using could provide certain benefits for long-range attacks, said Samuel Bendett, an expert on autonomous military systems at the Russian Studies Program of the Center for Naval Analyses, a research organization based in Virginia.

“The push design is probably more amenable for better sensor packages because nothing is obstructing the view from the sensor,” Mr. Bendett explained, referring to the propeller or engine being in the back. “This also reduces drag. It makes it easier to fly against resistance like wind and other natural phenomena.”

On July 25, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal announced that Ukraine was planning to increase its investment in drone technology tenfold — from around $108 million last year to over $1 billion this year.

There was no mention of long-range drones, but two promotional images included in the announcement showed what The Times determined to be the Bober. It was the first time any photos have surfaced of the drone beyond those on Mr. Lachenkov’s Telegram post in May. One photo also shows the UJ-22 Airborne.

Unlike with the Bober, there is some public information about this drone. According to specifications on Ukrjet’s website, it can fly for six hours at a range of 500 miles, making it able to cover the distance from Ukraine’s border regions to Moscow. The Times has found photos of at least three instances of the UJ-22 inside Russia.

There has been no official public display or mention of the third drone tracked by The Times, but wreckage of the craft has been seen at four attack locations inside Russia, including near Moscow. A clue about the drone can be gleaned from Serhiy Prytula, an influential volunteer fund-raiser who launched a “For Revenge” campaign for long-range kamikaze drones similar to Mr. Lachenkov’s.

He posted about this aircraft on May 10, including a night-vision image of it launching from Ukraine, and he seemed to imply that it was used in an attack on a Russian oil depot. Mr. Prytula’s foundation said that, so far, it has raised 251 million hryvnia, around $6.8 million, all to fund longer-range drone models.

Ukrainian officials, too, have implied that drones will continue attacking targets in Russia.

“The only way to stop this kind of thing,” said Mr. Yusov, the G.U.R. spokesman, “is the immediate withdrawal of Russian occupation troops from Ukraine and the restoration of our sovereignty.”

Riley Mellen contributed reporting.

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