Russian President Vladimir Putin should brace for more attacks inside of his country in the new year, Ukraine’s top military intelligence official warned in an interview that aired Wednesday.
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s chief military intelligence official, said there will be strikes “deeper and deeper” inside Russia in an interview with ABC News. But he didn’t clarify whether Ukraine would be behind the upcoming attacks.
His word of warning comes just weeks after blasts rang out on Russia’s Engels air base and Dyagilevo base in the Ryazan region, attacks which Russia and others widely attributed to Ukraine. Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Budanov said he was “glad to see” the attack on Engels.
The series of blasts rattled some Russian officials, raising alarm about whether Ukraine has become emboldened to inflict damage inside Russia proper as Putin’s war nears its one year mark. It’s also raising questions about whether Russia is capable of thwarting Ukrainian strikes at all.
The prospect that Ukraine may be willing to expand its arsenal of attacks inside Russian territory in the coming days could mark a new arc in the war—with Ukraine taking more brazen actions against Russia and Russia on its backfoot.
Budanov’s warning comes as Russia grapples with a series of military failures inside Ukraine. An attack against a building in Russian-held Makiivka inside Ukraine that killed dozens of Russian soldiers has left the Kremlin scrambling to find a scapegoat, including Russian troops’ cellphone use. And following counteroffensives from Ukraine, Russian troops have withdrawn from multiple regions within Ukraine in recent months. Meanwhile, Russia’s military has been grappling with a host of internal problems, from logistics issues to infighting.
Both Russian and Ukrainian forces continue to wage assaults against one another. But Russian forces have begun shifting some of their forces away from Bakhmut, after failing to seize the city for months, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Ukrainian forces continue to work to strike Russian military logistics in Luhansk, according to the Institute for the Study of War. Ukrainian aviation on Wednesday carried out 17 strikes against the Russians, as well as four strikes against Russian anti-aircraft missile complexes, according to a brief from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Ukraine is working to bolster its ability to take on Russia in the new year in other ways. The country has launched a military psychological training program to train troops to intervene with their comrades when they freeze up due to combat stress, the military psychologist in charge of the program told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview. The hope is that the program will lead to more victories against Russia by building up more resilience amongst Ukrainian forces.
Budanov’s warnings about attacks within Russia may also be an attempt to prove a point to Russians that Ukraine has the moral high ground, according to Jay Truesdale, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in both Russia and Ukraine.
“What Ukraine would seek to demonstrate is that it is fighting a more just war—not only a war to defend its own sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also with means that are differentiated from Russia, which is attacking civilian targets,” Truesdale told The Daily Beast. “There is one consistent element among the attacks that have occurred on Russian soil or in Crimea—attributed to Ukraine by Russian government officials, Russian bloggers, or non-government Ukrainians—and that’s that they’ve targeted military facilities or facilities that could have a military purpose, such as supply depots. In other words, the common denominator is that these all could be considered legitimate military targets.”
Attacking inside of Russian territory could raise questions about whether Russia may escalate the war with nuclear weapons to respond. Russian authorities have warned that attacks against Russia will warrant harsh responses. After an attack on the Kerch bridge to Crimea, the peninsula which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Putin himself warned that Russia would not hold back.
“If attempts to carry out terrorist attacks on our territory continue, Russia’s responses will be harsh and, in terms of their scale, will correspond to the level of threats posed,” Putin said in October. “It is simply impossible to leave crimes of this kind unanswered.”
And while Russia began launching assaults against civilian infrastructure in October, cutting off civilians from water and heat, after several attacks and explosions in Crimea, Russia has still not resorted to nuclear weapons.
There are other signs that Russia may not be willing or capable of dramatic escalation. Russia’s military posture has become so degraded throughout the war in Ukraine that its ability to respond forcibly or in an escalatory way is diminishing by the day, said Truesdale, now CEO of Veracity Worldwide, a political risk consultancy. As of last month, Russia only maintained enough missiles in its arsenal to conduct three to five more waves of missiles strikes against Ukraine, according to Vadym Skibitsky, a representative of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.
“It will be difficult for Putin to dramatically escalate even though such a step would be consistent with Russia’s military doctrine. The Kremlin has put itself in a difficult position by deploying so much of its high-powered weaponry to attack civilian infrastructure, thereby reducing resources available to escalate in a conventional sense,” Truesdale said.
“If Ukraine conducts and then admits to a greater number of strikes on Russian territory, this could indicate a new chapter in the war. It would suggest Ukraine believes it has the means and the need to put more pressure on the Russian government,” Truesdale said, adding that, “If Ukraine begins to admit to conducting attacks on Russian territory, this may only be an acknowledgement of the multifaceted way in which Ukraine has been fighting.”