Ukraine is believed to have sent three, maybe four, modified Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh (Swift) drones deep into Russian territory on Sunday and Monday, targeting airbases being used to attack Ukrainian cities. Russia said one of drones killed three Russian military personnel at Dyagilevo military base, about 300 miles from the closest Ukrainian-held territory — and only 100 miles from Moscow.
Jet-powered Tu-141 surveillance drones, made in the 1970s and 1980s, have a range of up to 620 miles. The ones used this week were modified by Ukraine, using Ukrainian technology, Politico reports. "The modifications showcase the ability of the Ukrainian defense industry to innovate, even as Russia is forced to buy cheap Iranian drones."
The West has refused Ukraine's requests for long-range missiles or fighter jets, fearing they could be used to attack inside Russia, drawing NATO into direct conflict with Moscow. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reports, "the U.S. secretly modified the advanced HIMARS rocket launchers it gave Ukraine so they can't be used to fire long-range missiles into Russia." These drone attacks show Ukraine is capable of hitting Russia by itself.
"We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia," Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored Tuesday, adding that the U.S. and its allies are determined to make sure Ukraine has "the equipment that they need to defend themselves, to defend their territory, to defend their freedom."
Ukraine has not taken credit for the attacks, at least not officially. But "after nine months of Russian bombardment of their towns and cities, Ukrainians cheered the taste of payback and the demonstration that their side could now reach deep into Russia, theoretically capable of hitting Moscow if it chose," The New York Times reports. And Ukrainian officials and Western analysts generally agree that "short of nuclear escalation, there is little more Russia can do to Ukraine in retaliation that it is not already doing."
The drone attacks also uncovered embarrassing weaknesses in Moscow's air defense and struck a psychological blow inside Russia, where civilians are already upset over a mass conscription of men to fight in Ukraine. As of this week, former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk tells the Times, "the understandings of Russians that they are invincible and cannot be reached in Russia is not going to be there."