How the war reached Pskov. Military analysts discuss the strike at an airfield 700 kilometres from the Ukrainian border
Дмитрий Швец
How the war reached Pskov. Military analysts discuss the strike at an airfield 700 kilometres from the Ukrainian border
30 August 2023, 22:45

Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi / Reuters

In the early hours of August 30, Russia faced what is likely its most extensive drone assault since the outbreak of the war, with six Russian regions as well as Sevastopol in the annexed Crimea coming under attack. While reports of explosions in Bryansk or the Moscow region no longer stand out amidst the familiar war updates, the emergence of drones over the Pskov airport, situated 700 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, caught everyone off guard, including air defence forces. According to eyewitness accounts, there were attempts to shoot down the drones with small arms for several hours. Mediazona discussed the raid with drone expert Samuel Bendett from the CNA research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Israeli military analyst David Sharp, and independent military researcher Kirill Mikhailov.

Why Pskov

The Princess Olga international airport in Pskov stands out among the facilities attacked by drones on the night of August 30. The city is home to the 76th Guards Air Assault Division. Alongside civilian flights, the airport is also utilised by the military. According to the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine (GUR), the nighttime raid resulted in the destruction of four military transport Il-76 aircraft, with two more damaged. The Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations confirmed that planes were ablaze. According to “Pskovskaya Gubernia” reports, military transports began evacuating from the airfield shortly after the attack.

Authors of the “Moscow Calling” Telegram channel commented on satellite images of the Pskov airport before the raid, noting that “the concentration of Il-76s without any shelters at the airport is such that it’s harder to miss than to hit.”

“Pskov, Tula, and Ryazan—what connects these cities where there were varying levels of disturbances that night? Correct: these are the locations of airborne divisions,” noted the Pskov channel “Prikladnaya Sociopatia.”

Samuel Bendett, a member of the research unit studying Russian armed forces at the CNA and a drone specialist, told Mediazona that the scale and range of the strikes on the night of August 30 will allow for a comprehensive understanding of Russia’s air defence forces: where their deployment is deemed a priority by the Russian military and where it isn’t, and where the air defence is simply ineffective.

“There is also a psychological element present—it may just happen that the Russian military and security service simply did not expect or anticipate such a successful Ukrainian drone response, and therefore did not take adequate steps to mitigate this growing threat. The same goes for the Russian intel assessment of Ukrainian drone development capabilities—again, the Russian services may not have anticipated and probably underestimated how successful Ukraine can be in manufacturing several long-range kamikaze drone types,” believes Bendett.

How could it happen? Two suspect theories

Given Pskov’s proximity to the borders of Estonia and Latvia, and its roughly 700-kilometre distance from Ukraine (with the bulk of the supposed path the drones launched from Ukraine would have had to cover over Belarus), Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov hinted that the UAVs might have been launched from one of the Baltic countries, which he promptly suggested should be “obliterated.”

However, military observers from IStories and the BBC Russian service point out that Ukraine possesses several kamikaze drones capable of covering such a distance: UJ-22 Airborne, Raybird-3, and the Beaver UAV. The latter was showcased by Ukrainian volunteers at the end of July, who warned that “Moscow should get used to strikes.” However, as IStories notes, Beavers were previously used more sporadically, while the raid on Pskov lasted at least two hours.

Another narrative, commonly promoted by loyalist Russian media, suggests that the drones are launched by saboteurs from within Russian territory. However, there are counterarguments to this claim.

“It’s even more peculiar to assume that fairly large devices (with a wingspan of such drones typically ranging from two to three metres) could be transported into Russia or Belarus and launched from there,” Pavel Aksenov, a military expert tells the BBC. “For a launch, you either need a flat surface on which the drone could accelerate, much like an aeroplane, or a catapult, which also happens to be quite a bulky structure.”

Nevertheless, Israeli military analyst David Sharp tells Mediazona that he does not rule out the possibility that the drones targeting Pskov were indeed launched from Russian territory.

“It’s not as if it’s an insurmountable barrier, but the distance is vast. As far as I remember, witnesses who were interviewed didn’t hear the characteristic humming of a drone, yet the strikes were incredibly accurate. It’s not that such outcomes couldn’t be achieved with GPS guidance, but... Typically, smaller drones with weaker engines, primarily electric ones, are not launched from afar. They’re much quieter than larger diesel or petrol engines, which sound akin to a motorcycle or moped. Such engines are often audible for kilometres, especially at night,” he said.

Why drones are so important

In the initial months of the full-scale invasion, the name of the Turkish drone Bayraktar became synonymous with aerial prowess: the dramatic videos of Russian equipment being destroyed by aerial strikes largely transformed the perception of the war amongst both Ukrainians and Russians.

Over a year and a half into the conflict, the significance of drones has only escalated, and this is best understood in Ukraine: a fundraiser for kamikaze drones reached its target of $6.3 million in just three days. According to estimates by the British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the Ukrainian Armed Forces lose around 10,000 drones of various types every month.

Researchers David Hastings Dunn and Stefan Wolff from the University of Birmingham, in an article for The Conversation, characterise the role of drones in the current war as follows: for Kyiv, drones have become a relatively inexpensive way to extend combat operations into Russian territory and boost the morale of Ukrainians. Thanks to technological advancements (for instance, VR-helmet controls), drones can indeed undertake increasingly complex combat tasks.

Military analyst Kirill Mikhailov explains the increasing raids deep into Russian territory by highlighting that Ukraine is advancing its drone manufacturing and modernisation efforts and investing in training operators. The scale of these attacks allows a portion of the drones to bypass air defences and reach their targets.

“For Ukrainians, the capability of creating an effective ‘long hand’, as I call it, has been a primary objective: efforts were made to adapt various commercial models for strike purposes, and purchases were undertaken. It’s crucial for Ukrainians to bring the war deep into Russia [as retribution] for the sufferings Russia has imposed upon them,” explains Sharp.

Andrei Marochko, a former police officer from the self-proclaimed LPR, who appears on RIA Novosti, an official Russian news agency, as a military expert, acknowledged in a conversation with Mediazona that the number of drone raids has increased manifold recently. According to him, Ukraine is deploying a more diverse range of devices to “overload” Russian air defences.

Marochko believes that the intensity and frequency of such attacks will only escalate, as long as Ukraine possesses the “capability and material-technical means.”

It would be challenging for Russia to establish a tiered air defence system effective against drones, continues Mikhailov—it would require immense resources.

“It seems to me that this is Ukraine’s calculation—to have the Russians try to defend the vast territory of Russia, thereby dispersing their air defence forces. This, in turn, would prevent an excessive concentration of air defences at the frontline,” he speculates.

“It’s possible to divert significant resources to protect the rear, and this will have a profound psychological impact. Currently, I’d say, we’re observing the early signs of this phenomenon. Imagine if there were even more drones,” forecasts Sharp.

Mikhailov notes that most modern air defence systems are designed to combat aircraft and cruise missiles, and their effectiveness against UAVs is much lower: drones are small, fly low, and are significantly cheaper.

“The need is to create a simple, functional machine that will be reliable and have a large operational radius. Radius is crucial for programming the most efficient routes to circumvent air defences: one can approach a target via a longer route to bypass air defences. It’s also essential for them to carry a substantial payload; otherwise, it’s just shattered glass and media coverage. The warhead should preferably be heavy for hitting significant targets. Resistance to basic electronic warfare means is essential. This combination is the key to success,” David Sharp details the fundamental requirements for a combat drone.

Aksenov from the BBC also highlights another significant advantage of drones.

“Every downed drone provides valuable information about the location of air defence and electronic warfare means to those who launched it. Therefore, with each raid, there’s more data about gaps in the air defence,” he writes. “Perhaps that’s why an attack on the Pskov airfield was successful—prior to that, many drones were shot down in the Bryansk region.”

While the Russians regularly present new devices for suppressing and destroying drones, Kirill Mikhailov refers to these developments as “trench electronic warfare”—they can only cover a small area. Furthermore, the analyst notes, the tools are constantly evolving and changing.

In this arms race, Ukraine currently has a clear advantage—the support of technologically advanced countries. Russia touts the Iranian Shahed drones as domestically produced Geran, involves underage students in their production, and in Germany, individuals can be arrested for supplying components to Russian companies.

Germany promises to supply Ukraine with next-generation drones and anti-drone equipment.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

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