Fifteen months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is no longer any question that the war has come to Russia. There is fighting and artillery shelling in Russia’s border towns while Moscow residents are rattled by not-yet-lethal drone strikes. How will this affect the course of the war and its moral calculus—and how should the United States react?
In a sense, the blowback for Russia was inevitable. You can’t spend more than a year bombing civilians in a war of aggression and act surprised when the victim strikes back. One can only marvel at the shamelessness of Russian TV propagandists who assert with a straight face that Russian strikes at Ukraine have been aimed solely at military targets while Ukrainian drones are hitting civilians. In the real world, we all know that, despite the overall effectiveness of Ukrainian defenses, men, women and children in Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities are being killed in drone and missile strikes almost every day. Some of those deaths are in Kherson, which Russia regards as one of its own cities.
So far, the official Russian response is low-key, mostly stressing that air defenses in Moscow work properly. What’s more, the Kremlin has remained silent about the events in the border region of Belgorod, where towns and villages have been under attack by self-proclaimed Russian guerilla units operating out of Ukraine and where hundreds of residents, especially children, have been evacuated to safety. It’s hard to say whether actual Ukrainian soldiers are involved in these incursions, but there is no doubt that they are backed and assisted by the Ukrainian armed forces.
Giving Russians a taste of the war their leadership started is an entirely defensible strategy. But it’s a strategy that must be carefully calibrated for at least two reasons.
One: Targeting Russian territory can mobilize the Russian population. So far, majority attitudes toward the war have vacillated between passive support and indifference; few volunteer to fight, and partial mobilization last fall led to massive evasion and discontent. That could change if the propaganda claim that Russia is under attack becomes a reality. A Russia genuinely motivated to fight will be far stronger.
Two: If Ukrainian strikes start inflicting civilian casualties, it’s likely to affect public opinion in the West, which is crucial to continued assistance. Such hesitation is especially likely if weapons supplied by the West are used to kill Russian civilians on Russian soil, raising the risk of escalation. Yet the moral dimension matters, too. Some Ukrainians complain of a double standard: Russia can kill and maim Ukrainian civilians, but the world balks at Ukraine responding in kind. But however unfair it may seem, the fact is that the world backs Ukraine because, simply put, Ukrainians are the good guys in this conflict. When the good guys sink to the level of the bad guys, how long before they are no longer good?
So far, Ukraine has managed its strikes carefully. The drone strikes seem calculated to avoid civilian deaths or large-scale destruction; many of them also amount to small jabs at Moscow’s super-elite suburbs to which many ordinary Russians have responded with surprising glee.
If smartly done, Ukrainian moves to bring the war to Russia could rouse the people’s anger against the regime in Moscow, not the government in Kyiv. Given how smartly Ukraine has handled the war so far, there’s a good chance this strategy can succeed.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.