‘If Ukraine’s current bombing campaign continues to gather momentum,’ an analyst reckons, ‘Russian military chiefs will have to decide whether to reduce protection for the army in Ukraine or leave critical infrastructure on the home front exposed to potential attack.’


January 26, 2024

The New York Sun


Ukrainian drones, in the past week alone, have bombed military and energy facilities in five Russian cities, hitting targets in a 1,000-mile-long north-south arc that stretched from an oil refinery near St. Petersburg, on the Baltic Sea, to a refinery near Sochi, on the Black Sea. Local Russian governors have posted spectacular photos: orange flames and thick black smoke pour from oil tanks; water from fire hoses encases a stubborn gas blaze in an ice palace.  “Last night we hit the target, and this thing flew exactly 1,250 kilometers,” Ukraine’s minister of strategic industries, Oleksandr Kamyshin, told a panel last week at Davos. Carried out by Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate, the drone strikes on the Baltic ports of Ust-Luga and Primorsk mark the first time in the nearly two-year war that Ukraine hit St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and President Putin’s hometown.

With the Ukraine-Russia land war stalled in a World War I-style stalemate, the drone war is the new face for Ukraine’s war with its big neighbor. President Zelensky promises to produce a million drones this year. As Ukrainians build drones with longer ranges, they now can hit almost any target in European Russia. “This kind of asymmetrical warfare plays to Ukraine’s strengths while exploiting Russia’s weaknesses,” a Kyiv-based Atlantic Council Ukraine analyst, Peter Dickinson, writes yesterday. “If Ukraine’s current bombing campaign continues to gather momentum, Russian military chiefs will have to decide whether to reduce protection for the army in Ukraine or leave critical infrastructure on the home front exposed to potential attack.”

In response to the Ust-Luga blaze, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, assured reporters Monday: “The Ministry of Defense, our air defense assets, other relevant agencies are taking necessary measures to protect against this kind of terrorist attack.” In reality, it is nearly impossible to defend the world’s largest country, and the Kremlin rations air defenses.

Last week there was grumbling in St. Petersburg that scarce Pantsir-S1 air defense rockets protect the elite country compound at Lake Valdai. Last summer, when a column of military mutineers approached Moscow, Mr. Putin reportedly retreated north, toward his fortified mansion at Lake Valdai.

The goal of Ukraine’s drone bombing campaign is to deprive Russia of export earnings and to deprive its military of fuel, the lifeblood of modern warfare. To disrupt energy earnings, the Ukrainians sent drones against two Russian ports that face each other across the waters of the Gulf of Finland. The attack on Primorsk apparently failed.

In a video of Sunday night’s attack on Ust-Luga, a man can be heard shouting: “A drone is flying over the base!” The subsequent explosions set off a massive fire that may put the Novatek refinery off line for months. Situated 100 miles west of St. Petersburg, the refinery converts gas condensate from Western Siberia into higher value export products — naphtha, diesel, and jet fuel.

Yesterday, as the Kremlin was literally putting out fires in St. Petersburg, Ukrainian drones crossed the Black Sea and set fire to Rosneft’s oil export terminal at Tuapse. Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer, said the fire was extinguished in several hours. In another attack, Ukrainian drones set ablaze an oil tank farm at Bryansk region, 30 miles north of Ukraine. Also last week, a drone hit a gunpowder factory at Tambov, apparently causing little damage. The week before, a drone hit a fuel facility at Oryol.

Earlier this month, a blaze ripped through Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant, a factory hit by American sanctions because it builds and maintains tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and self-propelled artillery systems. At about the same time, a massive explosion erupted in Kamensky, the largest chemical plant in southern Ukraine. Some 10 miles from Russia-controlled Donetsk, the plant says on its website that it produces “special-purpose chemical products” for Russia’s military aimed at “strengthening the country’s defensive capabilities.”

These fires are part of a surge in industrial fires across Russia since Mr. Putin launched his full-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Last year, the number of all fires in Russia — largely of houses and forests — rose by 15 percent, hitting about 100,000, according to Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations. By contrast, the number of industrial fires more than doubled, jumping to 939 fires in 2023 from 416 in 2022, according to analysis by a Ukrainian open source intelligence group, Molfar. Of these industrial fires, about one third were in factories and one third were in warehouses.

Far from being caused by spontaneous combustion, many seem to be arson. The most spectacular recent fire was a blaze two weeks ago that consumed a 25-acre warehouse of Wildberries, Russia’s largest online retailer. The fire was so large that passengers took photos through the windows of planes flying to St. Petersburg.

Rospartizan, a Russian Telegram channel maintained by anti-Putin “freedom fighters,” said the arson was in reprisal for authorities press ganging foreign migrant workers to fight in Ukraine: “The fire was also preceded by a raid by the police and the National Guard on this warehouse. They were checking migrants, but in fact their main goal, of course, was to search for cannon fodder for the war.”

It is not just a subversive Telegram channel that claims that anti-war, anti-Putin saboteurs are rife in Russia. On Monday, Russia’s Internal Affairs Ministry reported that since the war started 23 months ago, there have been 184 cases of railway sabotage and 220 cases of ‘attacks and arson’ against draft boards. Far from a big city elite phenomenon, these attacks were recorded in 58 regions, or 70 percent of the 83 units in the Russian Federation.

James Brooke is a Contributor for the New York  Sun and has traveled to about 100 countries reporting for the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Voice of America. He reported from Russia for eight years and from Ukraine for six years, coming home in 2021.