Escalation Nation: US OKs Drone Attacks Inside Russia

December 13th, 2022 - by Michael Evans and Marc Bennetts / The Sunday Times & CNN


A Russian drone is seen above the Ukrainian capital

Pentagon Gives Ukraine Green Light for Drone Strikes Inside Russia

Michael Evans and Marc Bennetts / The Sunday Times

LONDON (December 10, 2022) — The Pentagon has given a tacit endorsement of Ukraine’s long-range attacks on targets inside Russia after President Putin’s multiple missile strikes against Kyiv’s critical infrastructure.

Since daily assaults on civilians began in October, the Pentagon has revised its threat assessment of the war in Ukraine. Crucially, this includes new judgments about whether arms shipments to Kyiv might lead to a military confrontation between Russia and NATO.

This represents a significant development in the nine-month war between Ukraine and Russia, with Washington now likelier to supply Kyiv with longer-range weapons.

“We’re still using the same escalatory calculations but the fear of escalation has changed since the beginning,” a US defence source told The Times. “It’s different now. This is because the calculus of war has changed as a result of the suffering and brutality the Ukrainians are being subjected to by the Russians.”

Washington is now less concerned that new long-range strikes inside Russia could lead to a dramatic escalation. Moscow’s revenge attacks have to date all involved conventional missile strikes against civilian targets. Previously, the Pentagon was warier of Ukraine attacking Russia because it feared the Kremlin would retaliate either with tactical nuclear weapons or by targeting neighbouring NATO nations.

However, Washington does not want to be seen publicly giving the green light to Kyiv attacking Russian soil. Its position on Ukraine’s attacks inside Russia was defined this week by Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, who said: “We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia.”

However, a US defence source said: “We’re not saying to Kyiv, ‘Don’t strike the Russians [in Russia or Crimea]’. We can’t tell them what to do. It’s up to them how they use their weapons. But when they use the weapons we have supplied, the only thing we insist on is that the Ukrainian military conform to the international laws of war and to the Geneva Conventions.

“They are the only limitations but that includes no targeting of Russian families and no assassinations. As far as we’re concerned, Ukraine has been in compliance.”

Ukraine Escalates War with Russia
Within these limited constraints laid down by the Pentagon, Kyiv is now adopting a more aggressive, more persistent offensive against targets inside Russia. Ukraine has been careful to use its own drones, not US-supplied weapons, to carry out the strikes.

The drones, based on Soviet Tupolev TU-141 Strizh surveillance systems developed in the 1970s, have been reprogrammed to give them longer range and a sizeable munition for launching at low altitude.

The modified TU-141s were deployed this week in three raids against military bases 300 miles inside the Russian border and on fuel tanks about 80 miles across the Ukrainian border, in each case evading air defences. The drones can fly at 600 mph at low altitude, like cruise missiles.

Ukraine and America are playing a careful game over these strikes, which have added a bold new ingredient to drone warfare in the nine months since the Russian invasion. The Pentagon refuses to make any public statements about the attacks, while Kyiv has declined to claim responsibility.

If the US decides to supply Ukraine with longer-range weapons capable of striking deeper into Russia, the fear of potential escalation could increase dramatically. But Pentagon officials have made it clear that requests from Kyiv for longer-range US weapons, including rockets and fighter bombers which could be used for even more effective strikes inside Russia or occupied Crimea, are being seriously considered.

“Nothing is off the table,” a senior US defence official said.

Weapons high on Kyiv’s wish-list include the army tactical missile system (ATACMS), which has a range of 190 miles and would be devastatingly effective if used in deep-penetration raids within Russia.

The Pentagon, in discussions with NATO allies, has until now deferred the decision on whether to offer the hardware and US defence sources would not be drawn on a report in the Wall Street Journal claiming the M142 high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) that has been operating in Ukraine for several months had been modified to prevent it firing ATACMS.

The drone Ukraine wants more than any other is the American MQ-1C Gray Eagle, which has a range of 250 miles, is armed with four Hellfire missiles or eight Stinger missiles, can remain airborne for more than 24 hours and is equipped with sophisticated reconnaissance systems.

Eric Edelman, who was a top policy specialist at the Pentagon and worked with the State Department as ambassador to Finland and Turkey, believes the delay in supplying such weapon systems is no longer sustainable.

“The administration is excessively self-deterred by the prospect of an alleged escalatory spiral which is largely illusory,” he said. “The best thing for all concerned is for the Ukrainians to be able to win as quickly as possible. Hence it makes sense to give them ATACMS and Gray Eagles and help them to put together a package of main battle tanks as well.”

US Rules of Engagement Have Changed
When the Russian invasion began on February 24, US policy on arming Ukraine was based on two key principles: that the American weapons supplied would not be used to attack Russia itself; and the choice of equipment would be conditional on the need to avoid war between NATO and Russia.

The objective was to arm Ukraine to defend itself against an illegal assault on its sovereignty, not for NATO to confront Russia. But those early sensitivities have all but vanished because of Russia’s attacks on civilians and less anxiety about provoking the Kremlin.

“Unlike at the beginning, we are now prepared to give a lot more detail about the shipments,” one US defence source said.

For example, the first shipment included man-portable air defence systems. It was only later that the State Department confirmed they were Stingers.

“We were initially worried about spelling out that we were supplying Stingers because of the scar tissue left from our supply of these weapons to the Mujahideen against the Russians in Afghanistan,” the defence source said.

Ukraine drones strike oil refindery inside Russia’s borders.

Strikes on Motherland Will Erode Public Support
Ukraine’s newfound ability to strike at targets deep inside Russia has set nerves jangling in Moscow and exposed President Putin’s promises of a quick and limited war.

Russian troops who poured over the Ukrainian border in February packed special victory parade uniforms and less than a week’s worth of rations. Yet despite his expectations of a swift military operation, Putin will now be the first Russian leader since the Second World War under whose rule enemies have struck the Motherland.

Three Russian soldiers have been killed and two long-range bombers damaged this week by suspected Ukrainian drones, including an attack on the Engels airfield near Saratov, almost 400 miles inside Russia. Explosions also hit military facilities in Ryazan, about 120 miles south of Moscow, and Kursk, 60 miles from the Ukrainian border. “It has become clear that there are no strategic facilities left in Russia that could be considered absolutely secure,” Alexander Kots, a Russian war correspondent, wrote.

The prospect of waves of Ukrainian drones heading towards Russian military bases raised concerns among the Russian military. “We are not in a position to effectively counter these drones,” an unnamed Russian soldier told the Volya Telegram channel. “There will be massive raids on air bases inside Russia, as well as on other military and infrastructure targets. In theory, they can even get to Moscow.”

The British Defence Ministry said the Kremlin was likely to consider the drone attacks to be among Russia’s “most strategically significant failures” since the start of the war. “Psychologically, I think it strikes a blow,” a western official said.

The attacks, together with setbacks on the battlefield, look certain to further undermine the Russian public’s support for the invasion.

Only one in four Russians want their army to continue fighting in Ukraine, according to leaked Kremlin polls. State television has even discussed the prospect of Russia losing the war, warning of “catastrophic” consequences for the country if that happens.

In public, Putin and other Kremlin officials continue to insist that their “special military operation” will be a success. Yet in private, the president and his henchmen are thought to have begun to make plans for an escape.

“Putin’s entourage has not ruled out that he will lose the war, be stripped of power, and have to urgently evacuate somewhere,” Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter who is now a political analyst, wrote on Telegram. Citing an unnamed insider, Gallyamov said the Kremlin was considering Argentina or Venezuela as safe havens. Igor Sechin, a senior Putin ally, is thought to be overseeing the project, which is codenamed Noah’s Ark.

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A farmer examines fallen cluster munitions that struck  his fields. 

Biden Weighs Ukrainian Requests for US Stockpile of Banned Cluster Munitions

Natasha Bertrand, Alex Marquardt and Zachary Cohen / CNN

WASHINGTON (December 8, 2022) — Ukrainian officials and lawmakers have in recent months urged the Biden administration and members of Congress to provide the Ukrainian military with cluster munition warheads, weapons that are banned by more than 100 countries but that Russia continues to use to devastating effect inside Ukraine.

The Ukrainian request for the cluster munitions, which was described to CNN by multiple US and Ukrainian officials, is one of the most controversial requests the Ukrainians have made to the US since the war began in February.

Senior Biden administration officials have been fielding this request for months and have not rejected it outright, CNN has learned, a detail that has not been previously reported.

Cluster munitions are imprecise by design, and scatter “bomblets” across large areas that can fail to explode on impact and can pose a long-term risk to anyone who encounters them, similar to landmines. They also create “nasty, bloody fragmentation” to anyone hit by them because of the dozens of submunitions that detonate at once across a large area, Mark Hiznay, a weapons expert and the associate arms director for Human Rights Watch, previously told CNN.

Video shows what looks to be banned cluster munitions used in Ukraine

Top US officials have publicly stated that they plan to give the Ukrainians as much support as they need to give them an upper hand at the negotiating table with Russia, should it come to that. But western military equipment is not infinite, and as stockpiles of warheads dwindle, the Ukrainians have made plain to the US that it could use the cluster munitions currently gathering dust in storage.

For Ukraine, cluster munitions could address two major issues: the need for more ammunition for the artillery and rocket systems the US and others have provided, and a way of closing Russia’s numerical superiority in artillery.

The Biden administration has not taken the option off the table as a last resort, if stockpiles begin to run dangerously low. But sources say the proposal has not yet received significant consideration in large part due to the statutory restrictions that Congress has put on the US’ ability to transfer cluster munitions.

Those restrictions apply to munitions with a greater than one percent unexploded ordnance rate, which raises the prospect that they will pose a risk to civilians. President Joe Biden could override that restriction, but the administration has indicated to the Ukrainians that that is unlikely in the near term.

“The ability of Ukraine to make gains in current and upcoming phases of conflict is in no way dependent on or linked to their procuring said munitions,” a congressional aide told CNN.

Both the Ukrainians and the Russians have used cluster bombs since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, but the Russians — who also used the munitions to devastating effect on civilians in Syria — have used them more often and against civilian targets including parks, clinics, and a cultural center, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch.

Russia’s use of the munitions — including its 300mm Smerch cluster rockets that can unleash 72 submunitions over an area the size of a football pitch — has been documented in dozens of Ukrainian regions, including in Kharkiv, as CNN has reported.

Asked about the negative perception of using cluster munitions, a Ukrainian official quickly responded they would only be responding in kind.

“So what, Russians use cluster munitions against us,” a Ukrainian official told CNN. “The [US] worry is about collateral damage. We are going to use them against Russian troops, not against the Russian population.”

CNN reached out separately to the Ukranian President’s Office and the Defense Ministry. The President’s Office referred CNN to the Defense Ministry.

The Defense Ministry told CNN it does not comment on reports regarding requests for particular weapons systems or ammunition, choosing to wait until any agreement with a supplier is reached before many any public announcement.

The US is not a signatory to the 2010 ban, known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and maintains large stores of the munitions. But administration officials believe that, in addition to the congressional limitations, there are too many downsides to the use of cluster munitions — the biggest being the risk they pose to civilians — to justify transferring them unless absolutely necessary. And for now, the US does not believe the munitions to be imperative to Ukraine’s success on the battlefield.

Ukrainian officials, however, argue that the Russians are using cluster munitions extensively, and largely in civilian areas. For that reason, the Ukrainians have approached the State Department, Pentagon and Congress “many times” to lobby for the munitions, known as dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, multiple sources familiar with the lobbying effort told CNN.

Ukrainian military serviceman Igor Ovcharruck holds a defused cluster bomb from an MSLR missile in the region of Kharkiv, Ukraine

Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Goncharenko is among the officials who has been pushing the US to provide the munitions. “It is extremely important, first of all because it will really change the situation on the battlefield,” he told CNN. “With these, Ukraine will finish this war much faster, to the benefit of everybody.”

“Russia is extensively using the old styles, the most barbaric styles, of cluster munitions against Ukraine,” Goncharenko added. “Personally, I was a victim of this. I was under this shelling. So we have all the right to use it against them.”

The first Ukrainian official and another source familiar with the requests said the Ukrainians want cluster munitions compatible with both the US-provided HIMARS rocket launchers and the 155 mm howitzers, and have argued that the munitions would allow Ukrainian troops to more effectively attack larger, more dispersed targets like concentrations of Russian soldiers and vehicles.

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Neither the US nor Ukraine are signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use, production, and stockpiling of such cluster bombs because of the potential risk to noncombatants. But the US began phasing them out in 2016 because they “contained hundreds of smaller ‘cluster bomb’ explosives that were often left unexploded across the battlefield, posing a danger to civilians,” according to a 2017 statement from Central Command.

The US replaced the dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, known as DPICMs, with the M30A1 alternate warhead. The M30A1 contains 180,000 small tungsten steel fragments that scatter on impact and do not leave unexploded munitions on the ground. Ukrainian officials, however, say that the DPICMs the US now has in storage could help the Ukrainian military enormously on the battlefield — more so than the M30A1.

“They [DPICMs] are more effective when you have a concentration of Russian forces,” the Ukrainian official told CNN, noting that Ukraine has been asking for the weapons “for many months.”

“Russians use all these cluster munitions, they don’t care,” the official said. “We are going to fight Russian troops, but Russians fight with our civilians with clusters.”

CNN’s Oren Liebermann and Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.

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