Kyiv, Ukraine — A fuel depot in Russia burst into flames shortly after surveillance video caught the bright streaks of missiles being fired from low-flying helicopters. A fire has broken out at a military research institute near Moscow. More fuel tanks exploded.
These and other similar attacks in Russia were some of the most intriguing and obscure military developments of the final month of the war. When performed by Ukraine, they represent acts of once almost unimaginable audacity; One of them set off the first air raid siren on Russian soil since World War II.
Russia has accused Ukraine of carrying out the helicopter attack, and military analysts have suggested that Ukrainian sabotage is very likely responsible for the other fires. For its part, Ukraine has made no official admissions, but has instead tongue-in-cheek denounced the possibility of its involvement, with one official suggesting the fires are just Russia’s bad “karma”.
Now a senior Ukrainian official has described his government’s strike policy in Russia in the clearest terms yet, calling it strategically ambiguous.
“We do not confirm and we do not deny,” said official Oleksei Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff.
In an interview, Mr. Arestovych compared the approach to Israel’s longstanding policy of ambiguity over nuclear weapons, another issue of extraordinary geopolitical sensitivity.
“After what happened, we’re not officially saying yes and we’re not saying no, just like Israel,” he said.
Any escalation in Ukraine’s attacks on Russia could have far-reaching consequences, perhaps affecting public opinion about the war in Russia or heating up the Kremlin enough to escalate its own attacks.
If Western weapons were used to attack Russia, it would fuel Russian propaganda blaming the West for the war and raise the possibility that the conflict could spread beyond the borders of Russia and Ukraine.
The fires at Russian military sites, beginning with the April 1 helicopter attack on the fuel storage facility in Belgorod, some 15 miles from the Ukrainian border, have added a new element to the military equation of the war. They point to the possibility that Russia, after weeks of wreaking havoc on Ukraine, could start suffering casualties on its own country.
The strikes come in two forms: the clear military attack with low-flying helicopters near the border and the sabotage deeper in Russia.
Russian and Ukrainian media reports have attributed about a dozen fires to strikes or sabotage. In addition to the helicopter attack, there were at least three other fires at military sites that appear suspicious and that military analysts said were very likely intentional.
And while some fires clearly indicate an attack or an act of sabotage — like the two fires that burned on 25 War.
The incidents have sparked debate over whether a broader range of targets in Russia could remind the Russian people that the war, which for now is only seen on television and filtered through state propaganda, has a price at home.
Alternatively, the fires and explosions could cause the Russians to rally around the flag in ways damaging to Ukraine, such as building support for a general mobilization in Russia. That would allow the Kremlin to send more soldiers to the battlefield, despite heavy casualties so far.
For their part, Ukrainian officials have hinted at their involvement in black humor
A deputy interior minister, Anton Gerashchenko, tweeted a “no smoking” sign next to a picture of the Bryansk fuel depots on fire.
Kyiv has also signaled that any counterattacks in Russia are simply part of a war Russia has started and asked, perhaps fatalistically, what more could Russia do to Ukraine? After all, the Russian army is already engaged in a full-scale attack.
“If you have decided to attack another country, commit mass murders, destroy peaceful people with tanks and support murders with warehouses in your region, then sooner or later the time will come to repay these debts,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, a negotiator for President Volodymyr Zelesnky. “So the disarmament of the murder camps in the Belgorod and Voronezh regions is just a completely healthy, natural process. Karma is a hard thing.”
Mr. Arestovych’s comment on Ukrainian politics was the most candid yet, laying out the Ukrainian government’s ambiguous position, even as officials in Kyiv have openly suggested that Russians should expect mysterious fires to continue spreading.
So far, Ukraine has received public support from Britain for its direct attack on Russia, with James Heappey, a State Department official, saying the attacks are “entirely legitimate” given the role of fuel and ammunition depots in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr Heappey also advocated the use of British-owned weapons, saying their use for attacks inside Russia “is not necessarily a problem”.
The Russian military, which has been firing rockets and artillery at Ukrainian cities and military targets including fuel depots for the past two months, warned on April 13 that Ukraine could retaliate.
Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian news agencies that Russia will respond by targeting the Ukrainian leadership. “We see efforts for diversions and strikes by the Ukrainian military at facilities in the Russian Federation,” he said. “If these incidents continue, the Russian army will target decision-making centers, including in Kyiv.”
Three major fires in Russia followed this warning, including one near Moscow at a military research institute in the city of Tver.
The arson and helicopter attack on Russian territory also served to boost morale in the Ukrainian military. After seeing the effectiveness of their small-unit tactics against the Russian army in the Battle of Kyiv in March, mid-level Ukrainian commanders suggested continuing this strategy inside Russia.
“It won’t end until we bring the war to Russia,” said the commander of a Ukrainian brigade, who asked that he only be called by his nickname, Akula, because he wasn’t allowed to speak publicly.
“It’s no secret that the Russian people support the war, that not only Putin and the rest of Russians are peaceful,” he said.
“We need to make Russian society fear attacks on their own country” to change perceptions, he said. “You have to send people like me to Russia.”
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